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One in ten people infected with the coronavirus continues to experience symptoms of the disease after eight weeks. The risk of such a course of the disease, which is called “long covid”, turns the life of even young and healthy infected people into a kind of “Russian roulette” with an unpredictable outcome, a leading British immunologist believes.
A group of British health workers who have had a long and severe illness and medical professionals described the disease’s course in a parliamentary group meeting on Tuesday.
According to them, long after infection, many continue to experience pain, constant fatigue, and severe nervous system damage.
Even for young and healthy people, infection with the virus can carry serious risks. They warn against the “black-and-white” perception of covid, which is supposedly either deadly or proceeds easily and quickly.
Indeed, most people carry the infection relatively quickly, but in a significant minority – from 5% to 10% – symptoms persist several weeks after infection.
The presence of such “long-lasting” symptoms is called “long covid”. They can exhibit themselves in many various ways, ranging from disturbing to downright debilitating. Among them are suffocation, chronic fatigue, loss of smell and taste, and in extreme cases, damage to internal organs.
Also, sick people talk about the appearance of diabetes, blood clots and diarrhea. There are even preliminary signs indicating changes in the structure of the brain in some of those infected.
Dr Natalie McDermott is a pediatrician who believes she contracted the coronavirus from a colleague.
After infection, she developed pains that prevent her from walking. Doctors suspect she has spinal cord injury.
“Young people who see themselves as invulnerable should be more careful,” she says.
“I’m 38, and I may not be able to walk without crutches. I may have to get around in a wheelchair,” McDermott suggests.
“Yes, you probably won’t die, but chronic problems can arise,” she adds, addressing the younger generation.
How many people have a lingering illness?
Their exact number is unknown.
Long-term covid professor and physician Nisrin Alwan of Southampton says the potential for patients like her could be overwhelming.
If 10% of those infected are sick in this form, we can talk about 40 thousand cases in Britain alone in the last week.
The British National Bureau of Statistics published the results of a pilot survey to determine the number of cases of “long” covid. Still, it could not come up with an accurate estimate because too many participants dropped out of the survey.
A preliminary estimate based on this survey suggests that a long course of the disease is noted in every tenth infected person.
According to other studies, one in 20 patients continues to suffer from the virus, based on observations by the ninth week after infection, and in every 50th, symptoms may persist for more than three months.
“Even if you don’t die.”
“We talk like death is the only bad outcome of the disease,” says Dr Alvan.
However, she also emphasizes that the coronavirus can leave previously completely healthy people disabled, affecting their eligibility to operate and take care of their families.
“We don’t have a system to record such incidents, and we cannot assess the damage,” she says.
In addition to the fact that the exact number of patients in a long-form is unknown, it was noted at the working group’s meeting that very little is known about the long course of the disease’s biological mechanisms.
“This is a chapter for medical textbooks that has yet to be written and needs to be written,” said immunologist Danny Altmann of Imperial College London.
“It looks like Russian roulette,” the doctor added.
“Even if you are not at risk and will not die […] you cannot know if you will recover within a few weeks or end up on crutches or in a wheelchair,” he cautions.