Photo: AFP via Getty Images
More than one million people around the world have been deemed recovered from the coronavirus, but beating the initial sickness may be just the first of many battles for those who have survived.
Some recovered patients report breathlessness, fatigue, and body pain months after first becoming infected. Small-scale studies conducted in Hong Kong and Wuhan, China show that survivors grapple with poorer functioning in their lungs, heart, and liver. And that may be the tip of the iceberg.
The coronavirus is now known to attack many parts of the body beyond the respiratory system, causing damage from the eyeballs to the toes, the gut to the kidneys. Patients’ immune systems can go into overdrive to fight off the infection, compounding the damage done.
While researchers are only starting to track the long-term health of survivors, past epidemics caused by similar viruses show that the aftermath can last more than a decade. According to one study, survivors of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, suffered lung infections, higher cholesterol levels and were falling sick more frequently than others for as long as 12 years after the epidemic coursed through Asia, killing almost 800 people.
SARS infected 8,000 people. With more than 4 million -- and more every day -- infected by the coronavirus, the long-term damage to health could strain social safety nets and health-care infrastructures for years to come as well as have implications for economies and companies.
The prospect led Nicholas Hart, the British physician who treated Prime Minister Boris Johnson, to call the virus “this generation’s polio” -- a disease that could leave many marked by its scars and reshape global health care.
“What these chronic issues ultimately look like – and how many patients ultimately experience them – will have huge implications for patients, the doctors who treat them, and the health systems around them,” said Kimberly Powers, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who is developing models on the virus’s spread to inform public-health efforts.