The World Health Organization warned on Thursday that the coronavirus might come with long-term health problems.
“When we say that the vast majority of people have a mild illness and recover, that is true. But what we cannot say, at the moment, is what are the potential long-term impacts of having had that infection,” Mike Ryan, the executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, said at a press conference.
“We hope that everybody who recovers from COVID-19 will make a full, permanent recovery, but there’s enough people out there having difficulties with their exercise tolerance, having difficulties with their breathing, and potentially having long-term impacts on their cardiovascular system, that we want to try to avoid all COVID infections possible, not just those COVID infections that lead to death,” he continued.
Ryan cited recent research out of Germany that raised concerns about the lasting impact the disease could have on the cardiovascular system in recovered patients. He emphasized that even people who have a mild case of the virus could be at risk of lasting health impacts. The research findings could challenge viewpoints that the virus is similar to a bad case of the flu and that young people generally overcome the disease unscathed.
The first study looked at the hearts of 100 people at the average age of 49 who had recovered from COVID-19 and compared them to similar images in people who were not infected with the virus. They found that 78 patients had structural changes to their hearts an average of over two months after testing positive for the disease, and 60 had signs of inflammation.
When a body reacts to a virus or other health problem, it generates an inflammatory response. If that response lasts a long time, it can do long-term damage that leads to heart disease and accelerate other heart conditions that would develop later in life, Ryan said.
Study author Valentina Puntmann told STAT that the high number of patients with ongoing heart abnormalities means “that the heart is involved in a majority of patients, even if Covid-19 illness does not scream out with the classical heart symptoms, such as anginal chest pain.”
The second study looked at the cadavers of 39 people who had died from COVID-19 and found the virus in the hearts of 24 patients. Both studies were published Monday in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Cardiology.
Ryan urged people to avoid taking a risk “that you cannot quantify,” adding that “these risks right now cannot be adequately quantified.”
“We need to avoid all COVID-19 infections, both in terms of reducing transmission, but also in reducing the long-term health impacts of this disease,” Ryan said.
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