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Editorial: Long Covid research must be priority

THERE can be few people who do not know of someone who has tested positive for Covid in recent weeks.

The Office for National Statistics estimates that one in 16 across Northern Ireland had the virus in the week up to July 20 – equivalent to more than 100,000 people.

Across the UK, the figure is more than three million as case numbers have risen almost as high as at any stage during the pandemic.

This latest wave does thankfully appear to have peaked as rates of infection and hospitalisation show signs of falling for the first time since May.

The difference from previous waves, and the reason restrictions have been lifted, is that vaccines have also reduced the risk of serious illness, hospitalisation and death.

However, what lies hidden behind the headline figures is a long tail of cases in which often debilitating symptoms persist for weeks, months or even years after the initial infection.

'Long Covid', also known as post-Covid syndrome, is thought to affect around two million people across the UK, or three per cent of the population, and includes within it a wide range of symptoms.

Researchers this week said they had identified three main groups: those tending to suffer neurological difficulties such as fatigue and 'brain fog', those experiencing mainly respiratory problems, and a final group reporting a range of issues such as heart palpitations, muscle ache and changes to skin and hair.

The severity of long Covid can vary greatly – some can manage with relatively little impact on their daily lives, while others are left unable to work or carry out many activities the vast majority take for granted.

For young people in particular, it can mean major disruption to education or employment at a critical stage.

While specialist clinics have been set up, understanding of the condition is still in its infancy and there are no proven drug treatments or therapies.

And as new Covid variants inevitably emerge, the number of people affected is only likely to increase, with serious consequences both for individual wellbeing as well as overloaded health services.

The reality is that the price of lifting restrictions and allowing the virus to spread relatively freely in the community is being paid by a large and growing group of people suffering in relative silence.

Further research to understand the causes of long Covid will be key to developing effective treatments and should be prioritised as a matter of urgency.

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