Long COVID is a serious health concern in Europe

Published June 27, 2023

Nearly 36 million Europeans – or 1 in 30 – may have experienced long COVID in the first three years of the COVID-19 pandemic, announced the World Health Organization (WHO) European regional director Dr. Hans Kluge, who cited the latest estimates by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). 

“Long COVID remains a glaring blind spot in our knowledge that urgently needs to be filled,” Kluge said, highlighting the unrecognized condition should be taken seriously among the socio-health sectors.

IHME long COVID researchers analyzed data covering 53 countries with a combined population of more than 900 million. Long COVID still remains a complex condition with many unknown variables. Currently, researchers categorize the condition into three distinct symptom categories: respiratory, cognitive, and fatigue/mood.

“The risk of long COVID is dynamic and changing over time. There’s a whole body of long COVID research that needs to happen. We’re just scratching the surface as we enter the fourth year of the pandemic,” says Dr. Sarah Wulf Hanson, IHME lead research scientist of global health metrics. “We need to understand better what long COVID is, how to diagnose and treat it, and how to translate all of this valuable information into practice.” 

In order to update risk estimates, the IHME long COVID research team is currently in the process of adding more disabling symptoms for the condition. According to Dr. Hanson, the additions could include loss of taste and/or smell, headache, insomnia, and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS).

Avoiding long COVID requires avoiding COVID-19 infection in the first place. Dr. Kluge called for 70% vaccination coverage for the priority groups of the elderly, the immunocompromised, and individuals with underlying conditions. He emphasized the need for both primary vaccines and booster coverage for these groups.

According to IHME’s updated analysis of 2022 data, women continue to be impacted by long COVID more than men. Initial peer-reviewed research published in JAMA in 2022 revealed that globally, 63% of those with long COVID during the first two years of the pandemic were female, meaning they were twice as likely as men to experience long COVID. Researchers underscore the need for everyone to continue being vigilant in avoiding contracting COVID-19 in the first place.

“While long COVID is likely much lower for Omicron, we have to remember that there are millions of people infected with Omicron now,” says Dr. Hanson. “That means the possibility of millions of long COVID cases that haven’t been identified yet.”