Covid-19: Epidemiologist warns Aussies of long Covid risks after repeat infections

An epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales has weighed in on the re-emerging Covid-19 wave, warning Aussies to be wary of the dangers of long Covid as cases continue to climb heading into another Christmas.

Dr Raina MacIntyre says there is “an enormous amount of evidence around chronic long term conditions caused by Covid” and warns the impact of long Covid overseas could soon affect the Australian workforce.

“This is not just a virus that causes respiratory illness, it does that but it also affects blood vessels, the heart, lungs and brain and a range of other organ systems,” she told ABC Radio Melbourne.

“There’s just so much evidence. Anyone who is telling you that is not the case is not reading the literature. There are also good studies that show if you are reinfected, your risk of long Covid increases. And we know long Covid is already impacting workforces in the US and the UK.”

Dr MacIntyre warned that the complacency of Australians in regards to testing, meaning case numbers are almost certainly higher than official reports.

“There is nowhere near as much testing as there was (back in 2021 and 2022) so there is a huge amount of under-ascertainment. Most people won’t test these days, so we don’t have as good a handle on case numbers,” she continued.

“It’s now almost 2024 and there is now a mountain of evidence that there is long-term vascular damage caused, even with mild infections.

“This is not a good virus to keep getting over and over again.”

Dr McIntyre said she was unsure what the specifics were on the updated recommendations for booster shots and “can’t give individual medical advice” to those asking her opinion on vaccines on the ABC call line.

Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) now only recommends booster shots for people over 65 and those who are immunocompromised.

“The recommended group is a small subset of the whole population of adults,” Dr McIntyre said, encouraging Aussies to “talk to your doctor and see what your options are”.

New national health data shows the country is now in the grips if its eighth Covid wave, with cases soaring across the states, and health experts are warning it could peak just in time for Christmas.

On Thursday last week, it was also revealed there’d been an outbreak of the virus in a Northern Territory aged care facility, while cases were also reported to be rising in NSW and Western Australia.

While the public health emergency relating to Covid is done and dusted, medical experts agree the pandemic is still a major issue

Early genome testing suggests the E. 5 variant – known as “Eris”, after the Greek goddess of strife and discord – accounts for about 50 per cent of cases in NSW.

Despite the ominous, and apt, name there is no evidence Eris is more severe or lethal than previous variants.

But NSW Health Director of Communicable Diseases Christine Selvey says early surveillance of cases suggests there is every chance the latest wave could peak at Christmas for “the third year in a row”.

“We had that first Omicron wave that coincided with Christmas and the New Year when it was really, really hectic and again last year around Christmas time, so certainly it could be – we don’t expect it to peak until some time in December,” Dr Selvey told ABC News.

The same goes for individuals who choose to wear a mask in public, or request others wear masks in their homes, with their wishes to be respected without harassment.

Those who feel unwell should stay home from work so they don’t spread the illness and get tested to confirm if they have Covid.

Those eligible for oral antivirals are also encouraged to start taking them as soon as they display symptoms, as that’s when they’re most effective.

In April 2023, it was announced that $50m will be spent studying long Covid, after an inquiry heard shocking evidence of the condition’s impact on vulnerable Australians.

Health Minister Mark Butler, announcing the $50m funding allocation for the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF), said long Covid is “an emerging health issue, both in Australia and internationally.”

It follows the House of Representative’s Standing Committee on Health, Aged Care and Sport making nine unanimous recommendations in a new report which prompted the spend.

Although there is no official definition of the condition known as long Covid in Australia, it is referred to in medical circles as post-acute sequelae of Covid-19, or PASC.

The report has itself recommended a definition be made.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines long Covid as a “condition that occurs in individuals with a history of probable or confirmed SARS CoV-2 infection, usually three months from the onset of Covid-19 with symptoms that last for at least two months and cannot be explained by an alternative diagnosis”.

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