“Long COVID” Haunts Many People After Their Recovery 
WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanon Ghebreyesus

It is “imperative” that governments recognize the long-term effects of COVID-19 and ensure that affected people can access health services, including primary health care as well as rehabilitation, emphasized the World Health Organization on Friday.

“Although we are still learning about this virus, what’s clear is that this is not just a virus that kills a significant number of people,” warned the Organization’s director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, just hours after a deadly earthquake jolted Turkey and Greece, killing over a dozen people and leaving some 400 injured. 

“This virus poses a range of serious long-term effects. While people do recover, it can be slow, sometimes [taking] weeks or months,” he added.

In past months, mounting evidence has revealed that COVID-19 can trigger a nasty array of long-term effects that range from fatigue, shortness of breath, inflammation and injury of major organs like the heart or lungs, as well as neurological and psychological effects, warned the director-general.

While it is still unclear how many COVID-19 patients experience such long-term effects, it has become strikingly apparent that young people, male and female, with seemingly mild disease, are also affected by long COVID. Several direct testimonies by people who had COVID were aired at the press briefing: 

Patients Testimonies – Eight Months And Still Ill 

Lih Hismeh, 26-year old with long COVID

“It’s been eight months, almost eight months now,” said 26-year old Lih Hismeh, as he recounted his painful experience of long COVID at Friday’s press conference. “I’m still suffering from fatigue, brain fog, chest pain, palpitations, digestive issues, short-term memory loss. There is no system in my body that hasn’t been affected.” 

“I went back to work on reduced hours, but I couldn’t even cope with that because of the brain fog,” added Hismeh, who is a member of the UK’s long COVID SOS patient advocacy group. “I used to be a software engineer. I can’t do that. I also used to do research in artificial intelligence. And now I can’t do that either. I just want my mental focus back.”

As the world itches for a vaccine, governments and societies must do “all they can” to suppress transmission using the tools that are available, including testing, contact tracing and isolation of COVID-19 cases, emphasized the director-general. He noted that such simple measures are still the “best way” to prevent the long-term consequences of COVID, but “commitment” and “hard work” are required to follow through.

“It’s not rocket science, but it requires commitment,” added WHO’s head of emergencies Mike Ryan. “It requires sustained commitment and hard work. It requires bringing people together and not tearing them apart. It requires humility, not hubris. 

“I wish the answers were simple, and there was a magic solution,”said Ryan. “But like everything in our lives that’s complicated. It takes hard work and commitment to work our way out of it.”

Mike Ryan, WHO’s head of emergencies

IHR Emergency Committee Urges Governments To Focus On Measures That Work

This Thursday also marked the fifth meeting of the Emergency Committee on COVID-19 to review the current COVID-19 climate, and to assess how well its temporary recommendations from early August were implemented. 

The Committee’s advice, which was accepted by the WHO’s director-general, urged countries to focus on proven responses and strong science, and unanimously agreed that the pandemic still constitutes a public health emergency of international concern. 

“The take home message is that it’s important for governments and citizens to keep focused on breaking the chains of transmission,” Dr. Tedros noted.

The Committee also commended the WHO’s sustained efforts to bolster national, regional, and global responses to the COVID-19 pandemic through its evidence based-guidance, technical assistance, clear communication, and for convening the Solidarity Trials and the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator.

However, the Committee’s Chair Didier Houssin, who also spoke on Friday, said the WHO Secretariat should revise its guidance on international travel to ensure that it is evidence-based and coherent with the International Health Regulations – the WHO’s legal framework that governs countries’ behaviour during health emergencies. He also urged politicians to avoid using the pandemic to acquire or keep power, instead calling for national unity and evidence-based responses.

Didier Houssin, Chair of The Emergency Committee on COVID-19

A Global Mechanism For Rapid Sharing Of COVID-19 Genetic Data

Meanwhile, the WHO emphasized the need for a global mechanism to rapidly share COVID-19 genetic sequence data, as media attention focuses on the fact that a a novel variant of the SARS-CoV virus, which originated in Spain, is now spreading across Europe.  The virus mutation has been identified by a team of researchers from Spain and the University of Basel. 

WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19 Maria Van Kerkhove

WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19 Maria Van Kerkhove emphasised that although ‘mutations’ sounds like a “very scary word”, these are natural changes, noting that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is “relatively stable” with a relatively slow mutation rate in comparison to other viruses.

However, mutations must be monitored regularly to ensure that SARS-CoV-2 is not becoming more deadly or infectious, as this would have important implications for diagnosis of the coronavirus and vaccine development.

 “We must monitor genetic changes in SARS-COV-2 to determine if the virus behaves differently,” Van Kerkhove warned. “We need researchers and scientists to continue to share those full genome sequences.”

Image Credits: NIAID.

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