WHO: Long-lasting effects of COVID-19 may hinder return to normal life for 36 million Europeans

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Although no longer classified as a global emergency, the persistent impact of COVID-19, coupled with additional threats like heat waves and mpox, may pose challenges for Europe throughout the summer, cautioned the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) regional office on Tuesday.

As we enter summer, which is “the first in more than three years that many of us will enjoy without the looming threat of COVID-19,” the life-threatening virus has not completely disappeared, emphasized Hans Kluge, WHO’s regional director for Europe, during a virtual press conference from Copenhagen.

Kluge highlighted that the coronavirus continues to cause a minimum of 1,000 deaths per week across the region, raising concerns about health as the holiday season commences.

Addressing the impact of “long COVID”

Over the past three years of the global health crisis, approximately 36 million people in the region may have experienced the complex condition known as “long COVID,” which remains poorly understood by scientists, according to data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, a WHO partner.

“This means that roughly one in every 30 Europeans has been affected by long COVID over the past three years,” explained Dr. Kluge, underscoring the ongoing difficulties these individuals face in returning to their “normal lives.”

In addition to the long-term effects on individuals, Dr. Kluge emphasized that COVID-19 has exacerbated the prevalence of diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and chronic lung illnesses, which currently account for 75 percent of mortality in the region. He reiterated WHO’s call for increased research to develop comprehensive diagnostics and treatments for long COVID.

Responding to the threat 

Dr. Kluge urged all eligible individuals, particularly those from vulnerable groups, to get vaccinated against COVID-19. “We should strive for at least 70 percent vaccine coverage among these groups, including both primary and booster doses,” he emphasized. He also advocated for a more active and healthier lifestyle. Engaging in at least 25 minutes of moderate exercise per day, quitting smoking, reducing alcohol consumption, and limiting salt intake can significantly enhance resilience against both infectious and non-communicable diseases, he added.

Warnings about extreme heat

As Europe prepares for summer, Dr. Kluge issued a warning about the likelihood of prolonged periods of extremely hot weather, which is increasingly becoming the norm rather than the exception, according to the European Union and the World Meteorological Organization.

“Last year, extreme heat claimed 20,000 lives in our region between June and August,” he cautioned.

To combat the heat, he advised limiting outdoor activities, staying hydrated, keeping homes cool, and allowing more time for rest. He also urged people to “look out for each other” and check on elderly relatives and neighbors.

Addressing mpox outbreaks 

Dr. Kluge noted a recent resurgence of mpox infections, which first appeared in the United States and subsequently spread to Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

Although only 22 new mpox cases were recorded in the European region in May, he recommended that individuals in high-risk groups get vaccinated, limit contact with others if symptoms occur, and avoid close physical contact, including sexual contact, with individuals who have mpox.

He commended the United Kingdom for its ongoing vaccination efforts and called on other countries to further reduce barriers to testing, vaccination, and care for individuals in high-risk groups.