Countries, including the US and UK, are investing millions into researching the long-term effects of the virus. Photo / 123RF
Scientists warn New Zealand’s health care system could be exposed to the “continuing burden” of people suffering from “COVID-19” – a “very real concern” that requires urgent attention.
Overseas research has found months after being infected with the virus, people experience disabling fatigue, “brain fog”, severe shortness of breath, palpitations, chest pain, severe muscle or joint pain, depression, anxiety and hair loss. .
Dozens of New Zealanders who are believed to have long been believed to have had Covid have come forward, prompting the launch of the “New Zealand Covid long haulers” Facebook group.
One of the biggest concerns is that people may not even know they have had Covid and then have lung or heart problems in their path without
doctors know the link, says University of Auckland immunologist Anna Brooks.
However, any allocation of Government funds to research the long-term effects of Covid-19 on New Zealand is likely to be months away, even though overseas countries are investing millions.
The research proposal is being considered and will be released to the public at the end of the month, said a spokesman for the Ministry of Health.
Brooks said the old Covid research in New Zealand was important for a number of reasons including:
• Uncovering the longstanding prevalence of COVID-19 in New Zealand, especially among those returning who may have been infected with the virus overseas but never been diagnosed.
• Developing specific tests to provide assurance to individuals about whether or not they have the virus.
• Understand why patients develop COVID-19 symptoms by looking
mechanisms that may cause immune dysfunction.
• Monitor and support New Zealanders who have contracted Covid and could be at risk of developing long-term conditions.
Brooks said New Zealand also had the advantage of testing whether longtime Covid sufferers developed immunity to the virus because a large part of its population had not been vaccinated.
He said surprisingly very few people understood that the long-term and persistent symptoms of having Covid were very real and it was concerning that its prevalence was still unknown in New Zealand.
“Long Covid will be a continuing health burden and therefore research and support for the plight of New Zealanders is urgent.
“While the focus in New Zealand is on eradicating the virus and launching vaccines, there are concerns that those with Covid-19 will be forgotten.”
Dr Michael Maze, respiratory doctor and senior lecturer in medicine at the University of Otago, echoed Brooks’ comments last month, saying long-term suffering is real.
He and his team have followed people in the Canterbury region who contracted the virus during the first wave of the pandemic to assess their recovery.
“Talking to some people who have experienced these long symptoms, … the first thing they say is, ‘I really have a hard time getting people to admit I’m sick here’.
“They feel there is a perception that they have to get better and not be taken seriously,” he said.
University of Otago professor of epidemiology, Michael Baker, said we needed to be open-minded about the long-tail effects of Covid-19 because much was still unknown.
“While we think it looks like the tail will decrease over time, there is no guarantee that there won’t be any other effects that get worse over time.
“People think once you’re cured of polio, it’s over but then decades later people emerge with this well-defined post-polio syndrome because polio destroys a certain class of neurons in the spinal cord and the neurons that are left over have compensated … and as it grows age, things get worse. “
But Baker said keeping the virus away from New Zealand and launching a vaccine should be a priority and managing the consequences of infection is not immediate and the urgency is not as high for New Zealand compared to other countries.
The Herald asked the Ministry of Health how urgent the research is, what to consider, the types of research that could be done in New Zealand and when decisions about funding will be made. A spokesman said: “While this process is ongoing, there will be a limit to the amount of information we can provide.”
A year after contracting Covid-19, Peggy Mulligan is still having trouble kissing.
“A few days ago, I smelled gasoline for the first time since I caught a strange virus,” the 31-year-old told the Herald.
The New Zealander caught the virus in March last year while he was living in London.
He said his flatmate came home feeling bad and he thought he was dizzy but it turned out to be Covid.
“He was completely unwell for a week and we had an ambulance around the apartment at one stage because he couldn’t breathe but it turned out to be a panic attack. His emotions were high,” said Mulligan.
About 10 days later, Mulligan fell.
“I was really tired. Usually I did a little exercise but I didn’t do it that week … I had a lot of body aches and headaches but was still able to work from home.”
Mulligan said she recovered but then a week later she realized she couldn’t smell.
“My housemate was cooking bacon and I was in the kitchen and someone said ‘who cooked bacon’ and I thought it was weird, I couldn’t smell anything.
“Then, more and more in the media and one of the symptoms people experience is loss of smell so I tested myself by sniffing my perfume and toothpaste and couldn’t smell anything.
“It was very strange and never really came back,” he said.
Mulligan said 100 percent of New Zealand research is needed to tackle COVID-19 because while symptoms are mild, others are not, and much remains unknown.