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Can we overcome long-term effects of COVID-19?

While admitting that we are living in hard times, it seems we are underestimating its fallout. Living in the last quarter of 2020, we are in an bid to survive the COVID-19 disease and the consequent health issues by coping with this changed reality!

In fact, initially we thought the viral attack would not last long and life would be normal soon. Unfortunately, that did not happen. The media is providing us with the number of cases and deaths and related details on a daily basis, but not many of us are aware of the long-term side-effects of COVID-19 on a recovered patient!

In fact, even among those who did not show symptoms and were young and recovered, we have noticed abnormal changes. Interestingly, immunologists have speculated that coronavirus patients recovering from the infection could develop long-term symptoms, as a result of their bodies containing parts of the non-infectious COVID-19 genes, leading to an aggressive immune response. Perhaps the virus has caused some people’s immune systems to attack and damage some of their organs and tissues.

We also hear that some patients who were previously in good health are now attending health clinics with shortness of breath, fatigue, decreased tolerance to exercise, decreased sense of taste or smell and new or worsening anxiety or depression for several weeks or even months after they got infected with COVID-19.

This leads us to remember that clinical symptoms of the disease can range anywhere, from no symptoms at all and perhaps mild symptoms, to pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome, with multiple organ dysfunction and sometimes death.

The most important thing is that since the beginning of the pandemic, it has been known that a minority of the infected individuals, who are usually elderly or suffer from previous health conditions, are severely affected and often require hospitalisation, even in some cases intensive care.

More than 80 per cent of cases, according to the World Health Organization, are mild or asymptomatic and these patients usually recover after two weeks. Given the fact that COVID-19 is a new virus, its long-term consequences are still not well-known and hence we can call them the long-term consequences of COVID-19, which was defined as the presence of symptoms that extend beyond three weeks from the initial onset of symptoms. Chronic corona symptoms may extend beyond 12 weeks.

Could these complications occur also as a result of direct COVID-19 attack of tissues or deep inflammation in the body with an immune cell storm, in addition to the possibility of formation of very small blood clot (causing heart attacks or strokes), or is it a combination of these factors?

Here we have a reason to worry, as most of our youth indifferent to the precautionary measures, believe that they are invincible and long-term side effects would not haunt them for months after exposure to the corona virus. It may be noted that if he/she had slight symptoms, there is possibility for some to develop abnormal symptoms that they are not used to, as a result of what mentioned previously.

The sad thing is that the first few months of the pandemic were allocated to prevent the transmission of the disease, but I believe that now we need to give much attention to the long-term effects of coronavirus on our patients, as some recovered people still suffer because of this.

Indeed, among the most common chronic symptoms is fatigue, coughing, shortness of breath, headache, muscle and joint pain, as well as psychological and neurological difficulties. Therefore, people who have been discharged from the intensive care unit need long-term follow-up for any evidence of neurological damage, with possible interventional treatments if necessary.

However, it is better for everyone to remember that even those who were infected with very mild symptoms that did not warrant hospitalisation can have long-term problems!

Even people who test positive, but have not developed symptoms during the course of their illness, might be not immune to the long-term effects! This, of course, leads us to ask: How should people facing the long-term effects of COVID-19 be given the time and care they need to recover fully?

Even after we get a vaccine, the disease is likely to affect people’s lives and affect health systems for some time in the future. Of course, here it is a good reminder for all of us to do everything in our power to prevent infection for ourselves and our community, if we want to avoid the long-term or chronic health effects of COVID-19. There is still a lot of things unknown about this new virus, and you may not realise how lucky you are in terms of health until it disappears from you!

Dr Yousuf Ali al Mulla, MD, Ministry of Health, is a medical innovator and educator. For any queries regarding the content of the column he can be contacted at:

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