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Two million people may have long Covid

More than two million people in England are thought to have had one or more Covid-19 symptoms lasting at least 12 weeks according to one of the largest studies of the virus. 

The government-funded study is based on self-reported data from 508,707 adults aged 18 and above who took part in REACT-2 rounds three to five carried out between September 2020 and February 2021.

Around a fifth of those surveyed reported having had a Covid-19 symptom previously, with over a third reporting persistent symptoms lasting at least 12 weeks. Around a tenth of those with symptoms said they lasted at least 12 weeks and were severe.

The findings suggest the prevalence of persistent symptoms, or long Covid, increases with age, with a 3.5% increase in likelihood in each decade of life.

It shows long Covid is higher among women, people who are overweight or obese, who smoke, live in deprived areas or had been admitted to hospital. Persistent Covid-19 symptoms were lower in people of Asian ethnicity.

A spokesperson for Long Covid SOS campaign said the findings show how crucial it is to spread awareness of the condition in hard to reach communities.

‘There have been several studies which conclude that the proportion of people still suffering symptoms after 12 weeks is higher than the percentage suggested by the ONS, and especially given the sample size we need to take these data seriously.

‘It is particularly worrying that a significant proportion reports severe symptoms. It does not surprise us to learn that deprivation influences the incidence of long Covid, as is the case with many illnesses and this demonstrates how crucial it is to spread awareness of this condition in hard to reach communities.

‘These important findings add to mounting evidence that the challenges posed by Long Covid cannot be ignored, and are likely to impact society for many years to come.’

man in white crew neck shirt

Health bosses said Covid-19 is still a relatively new disease and to better understand its long-term effects the government is providing scientists with £50m of research funding through the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) to help ensure the best treatments are available.

To help people suffering the debilitating long term effects of this virus, the NHS has opened over 80 long Covid assessment services across England and last week the NHS published a £100m plan to expand support, including £30m to help GPs improve diagnosis and care for patients with long Covid.

Professor Paul Elliott, director of the REACT programme at Imperial, said: ‘Our findings do paint a concerning picture of the longer-term health consequences of Covid-19, which need to be accounted for in policy and planning.

‘Long Covid is still poorly understood but we hope through our research that we can contribute to better identification and management of this condition, which our data and others’ suggest may ultimately affect millions of people in the UK alone.’

People with persistent symptoms at 12 weeks fell into two broad groups. In the first, the most common symptom was tiredness and muscle aches.

In the second, the most common symptoms were shortness of breath affecting normal activities, tightness in the chest, and chest pain, with more people reporting that they had severe symptoms.

The study was based on self-reported data and because many of the symptoms are common and not specific to Covid-19  it may overestimate the prevalence of persistent symptoms following Covid-19.

Photo Credit – Engin Akyurt

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