LONDON — The World Health Organization on Wednesday issued an official “long COVID” definition in a bid to improve understanding of the persistent health problems that affect some COVID-19 survivors.
The United Nations health agency’s International Classification of Diseases now refers to the vexing phenomenon as “post COVID-19 condition,” noting that a separate definition may be applicable for children, CNBC reported.
Specifically, the WHO defines post COVID-19 condition as consisting of at least one symptom that usually begins within three months from the onset of a confirmed or probable coronavirus infection, persists for at least two months and cannot be explained by another diagnosis, Reuters reported.
According to CNBC, symptoms may start during the infection or appear for the first time after the patient has recovered from acute illness.
Common symptoms of post COVID condition include fatigue, shortness of breath, cognitive dysfunction “but also others ... which generally have an impact on everyday functioning,” the global health agency stated.
The WHO also acknowledged that its definition may change as new evidence emerges and as understanding of the consequences of COVID-19 continue to evolve, Reuters reported.
Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, called the formal definition a “great step forward” for the agency but one which requires continued attention.
“We have to remain vigilant. This pandemic is not over, and it continues to cause disease, continues to cause death, but it also continues to cause long-term consequences for people around the world,” Ryan said in a prepared statement.
The WHO estimated that between 10% and 20% of COVID-19 patients experienced lingering symptoms for months following infection, most frequently including persistent fatigue, breathlessness, brain fog and depression, CNBC reported.
Meanwhile, the condition - for which no proven treatment or rehabilitation guidance exists - is increasingly viewed by health experts as its own public health concern, “given the substantial impact it has on society, ranging from increased health care costs to economic and productivity losses,” the network reported.
According to Reuters, several university-led studies have attempted to quantify and contextualize post COVID condition’s impact to date, with the following results:
- An Oxford University study of more than 270,000 COVID-19 survivors found at least one long-term symptom in 37% of participants, with symptoms more frequent among people who had required hospitalization.
- A Harvard University study involving more than 52,000 COVID-19 survivors whose infections had been only mild or asymptomatic suggested that long COVID conditions may more often affect patients under age 65.
“A very common feature is the relapsing, remitting nature of the illness, where you feel as though you’ve recovered, then it hits you back,” Nisreen Alwan, an associate professor in public health at the University of Southampton, said during an online webinar hosted in September by the British Medical Journal to discuss the diagnosis, management and prognosis of long COVID, CNBC reported.
“It’s a constant cycle of disappointment, not just to you, but people around you who really want you to recover,” she added, reflecting on her own battle with the lingering condition.
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