As a science journalist, Long Covid is a topic well worth keeping an eye on – and not just because it is interesting, important, and affecting people in your work, family or social spheres. It may well have broader implications for what some now call post-infection syndromes.
Twenty, fifteen, ten years ago, if you came down with the post-infection syndrome labelled ME/CFS, you could expect to get little medical insight, support and sympathy from your healthcare professionals, family, and friends. Sufferers were widely regarded as malingerers or attention-seekers, exaggerating small symptoms and refusing to do things to improve their health, like engage in daily exercise.
Over time, with some robust and heroic campaigning, by patients ill-equipped to do the hard yards such that campaigning requires, views have shifted. Not only about the palpable reality of the condition, but also about its impact: in 2018, some careful mining of big data found that “… a prevalence rate of 857/100,000 for ME/CFS is not unreasonable; therefore, it is not a rare disease, but in fact a relatively common one” with costs 50% higher than those of lupus and multiple sclerosis.
Although ME/CFS’s triggers have not been conclusively demonstrated, it “has been associated with several infectious agents including Epstein–Barr Virus, Q fever, influenza, and other coronaviruses”.
The burden of Long Covid on society (never mind the severe and debilitating impact on individuals) is enormous. As of 31 January 2022, the Office of National Statistics in the UK reported that some 1.5 million people in that country were “experiencing long COVID symptoms, with 65% of those reporting a negative impact on their day-to-day activities. In the USA and UK, millions are taking long-term absence from the workforce due to long COVID”. The toll in the USA may be as high as 23 million.
Sharp, accurate reporting on Long Covid around the globe will help to drive funding for the kind of complex research necessary to understand the condition, to find ways to prevent the damage that results in Long Covid, and develop treatments that improve quality of life for sufferers. The hope is that such research will also shine a light on the potential long-term consequences of other infections, whether from bacteria or a range of viruses, and perhaps ultimately help those who suffer from conditions like ME/CFS, too.