At least 17mn people in Europe experienced long Covid during the first two years of the pandemic, World Health Organization modelling suggests, highlighting the scale of the public health challenges posed by a condition that encompasses cognitive problems, fatigue and shortness of breath.
The modelling, based on data compiled by researchers at the University of Washington, also showed women were twice as likely as men to experience the condition which is typically defined as symptoms experienced for 12 weeks or more after a Covid-19 diagnosis.
Researchers found a threefold rise in the number of new long Covid cases identified between 2020 and 2021. The findings, published on Tuesday, suggest the rise was driven by a surge in Covid infections in late 2020 and throughout this year.
“In the first two years of the pandemic, at least 17mn individuals across the 53 member states of the WHO European region may have experienced post Covid-19 condition, also known as long Covid,” the WHO said in a statement.
The modelling, conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, represents estimates rather than actual numbers.
Long Covid is a broad term covering symptoms that IHME researchers divided into three groups: fatigue with bodily pain and mood swings; cognitive problems; and shortness of breath. The modelling suggests almost 145mn people around the world suffered from any of the three main long Covid symptoms in 2020 and 2021, according to IHME director Christopher Murray.
Dr Hans Henri P Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, said the new data highlighted the urgent need for more analysis, investment and support for those who experience the condition.
“Millions of people in our region, straddling Europe and Central Asia, are suffering debilitating symptoms many months after their initial Covid-19 infection,” said Kluge. “They cannot continue to suffer in silence. Governments and health partners must collaborate to find solutions based on research and evidence.”
Researchers found the risk of developing long Covid dramatically increased among people who suffered Covid infections that required hospitalisation. In such instances, one in three females and one in five males were likely to develop the condition, according to the modelling.
IHME director Murray said it was important for health systems and government agencies to develop rehabilitation and support services for long Covid due to the number of people affected by the condition.
“It is also paramount for employers to understand so that special accommodations can be made to help those facing limitations,” he said.
WHO estimates, based on previous studies, suggest between 10 to 20 per cent of people who contract Covid develop a variety of mid- and long-term effects that can last for months or, in extreme cases, years.
There is growing recognition among global health authorities of the threat that long Covid poses to the financial wellbeing of workers and to economic recovery from the pandemic.
Research by the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies published last month estimates that the condition is costing the country’s workers a total of £1.5bn a month in lost earnings and could have a long lasting impact on the British economy.
Kluge said all countries in the WHO European region needed to recognise that a serious response was required to stop the lives of those affected getting any worse.
“We are hearing stories of so many individual tragedies, of people in financial crisis, facing relationship problems, losing their jobs, and falling into depression,” he said. “The consequences of long Covid are clearly severe and multi-faceted.”