At least 17 million people across Europe and Central Asia have suffered from long COVID since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which is urging countries to take the problem seriously.
The WHO defines long COVID as a condition that occurs in patients with a history of probable or confirmed coronavirus infection - usually three months from the onset of COVID-19 - and with symptoms that last for at least two months and cannot be explained by an alternative diagnosis.
While many long COVID patients recover over time, around 10-20 per cent still experience symptoms after 12 months, according to the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).
Its estimate of 17 million long COVID cases applies to the WHO European region - a broader geographical region than the European Union - which is home to nearly 900 million people and comprises 53 states, including Central Asian countries.
Hard to diagnose and hard to treat
“Post-COVID-19 condition” as it’s also known is complex and can be hard to diagnose as it has a range of more than 200 symptoms - some of which can resemble other illnesses - from exhaustion and cognitive impairment to pain, fever and heart palpitations.
Long COVID can also affect mental health, the WHO has warned.
Several scientists from organisations including the US National Institutes of Health and Britain's statistics office are looking into evidence of increased cases of depression and suicidal thoughts among people with long COVID, as well as a growing number of known deaths.
There's no proven treatment and debilitating symptoms can leave sufferers unable to work.
Worldwide, nearly 150 million people are estimated to have developed long COVID during the first two years of the pandemic, according to the IHME.
In the United States alone, the condition has affected up to 23 million people, the national Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated in March.
Women more at risk
New modelling conducted for WHO Europe by the IHME suggests women are twice as likely as men to experience long COVID.
The risk also increases dramatically among severe infections requiring hospitalisation, with one in three females and one in five males likely to develop long COVID.
WHO Regional Director for Europe Hans Kluge urged governments to pledge more investment, research and initiatives to help people suffering debilitating long COVID symptoms, saying these “cannot continue to suffer in silence”.
“We are hearing stories of so many individual tragedies, of people in financial crisis, facing relationship problems, losing their jobs, and falling into depression,” Kluge told a WHO Europe meeting in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.
“Many health workers who risked their lives on the frontlines of the pandemic now have this chronic and debilitating condition as a result of infection acquired in the workplace. They, and millions of others, need our support”.