NZ needs to act with long Covid 'tsunami' coming - expert

Source: 1News

Long Covid sufferers could be left with no support if New Zealand does not act soon to address the condition, an expert is warning.

Dr Anna Brooks, a cellular immunologist at the University of Auckland, is leading a crowd-funded long Covid research project.

Long Covid is characterised by a range of symptoms, including low energy, shortness of breath, a lingering cough, brain fog, low mood, joint pain, muscle weakness, a racing pulse, changes to taste and smell and poor sleep.

The condition was given a formal definition by the World Health Organization (WHO) in October last year.

READ MORE: Mild Covid infection can result in 'significant' changes to the brain

It said then about 10 to 20% of people are affected by long Covid, where symptoms last for three months or more after a Covid-19 infection.

It is too early to say, however, if long Covid will be worse with an Omicron infection.

Doctors around the country will be getting more guidance about how to help people experiencing symptoms long after testing Covid-positive.

Brooks told Q+A although vaccination rates help with long Covid numbers, Omicron is a "bit of a game changer" as it "slightly evades" the immune system.

"When people are symptomatic from that infection, that tells us that there's probably that added layer of long Covid probability. We just have no idea what per cent that's going to be."

Brooks' research is tapping into the experiences of about 90 participants who are suffering ongoing effects of the virus.

The participants have provided blood samples pre and post-vaccination in an effort to learn more about the cause of long Covid.

"We know that if we put the resources into understanding the mechanisms of this condition, that we can get treatments underway to reverse this condition," Brooks said.

Some long-term effects of Covid-19 according to the WHO.

The Ministry of Health announced this week more practical advice and guidance about a "rehabilitation framework" for long Covid was being developed by an expert advisory group.

However, asked on Q+A if there was a risk New Zealand could be caught flat-footed, Brooks said: "There's a risk if we don't act soon of people being left with no support. It's no secret that our health system is stretched. We're in the middle of the infectious part. All of our healthcare pathways are going to be strained. People talk about long Covid as a multi-system disorder. People talk about a laundry list of specialists that they end up with. That's where it becomes really difficult is because it's a whole body effect.

"I think we could be in trouble if we don't act fast to have some sort of national network where people can find out where to go, where to seek help, and who knows how long those waiting lists may be. It's really an equitable approach to, if you have these symptoms, how quickly will you be seen to and will your doctor know about them has been the strongest feedback, I would say. Because we absolutely have heard people going to their doctor and getting great treatment, but that needs to be for everyone and that's what we're not hearing."

The ministry tells people with long Covid to seek the help of their GP for management and treatment of their symptoms, but Brooks said many sufferers have been "gas-lit" or dismissed by their doctors.

Brooks told Q+A rehabilitative pathways are important, but they do not go far enough.

"What I would hope to see is that alongside the rehabilitative pathways, is that there's innovation going on and talking with us researchers, connecting with all of those people that are at the bleeding edge, if you like, of understanding the research so that we can act really quickly, so once we know what's happening biologically, that those treatment pathways can be integrated. It is not just about rehabilitation. We know that there is an opportunity to treat people, but we need the opportunity to do the research so that we can help people get back on their feet, so to speak," she said.

"I guess what we really want to see happen is that this education goes out in an equitable fashion so that all GPs, anyone who's seeing patients, understands the spectrum of symptoms, because there's going to be a tsunami of people, even in their early phase of recovery, experiencing these symptoms, and it's not that common to have tachycardia, shortness of breath and all of these things after a viral infection."

Brooks is not alone in her thinking.

Dr Mona Jeffreys, who is co-leading Victoria University of Wellington's Impacts of Covid-19 in Aotearoa study, which is funded by the ministry, told the Science Media Centre earlier this month there is very little support available for long Covid sufferers in New Zealand.

"Health professionals are woefully uninformed, and patients are being left uncared for," she said.

Jeffreys said advice is lacking on what people can do to reduce the risk of long Covid.

"I would want everyone to know, in the same way that we all know about using masks, washing hands et cetera, that if you get Covid, please rest until all symptoms are gone. At this stage, this is the only measure that we know can reduce your risk. Other than, of course, getting vaccinated and boosted, so as to reduce your risk of getting Covid in the first place."

Dr Bronwyn Lennox Thompson, a pain management expert at the University of Otago, told the Science Media Centre long Covid sufferers in New Zealand are likely to have "great difficulty" accessing rehabilitation services.

"Given the Government has placed most Covid management into the hands of primary care general practitioners, this means that most people with long Covid will struggle to obtain the rehabilitation they need."