COVID-19

Statement – Update on COVID-19: WHO/Europe calls for action on post-COVID conditions/“long COVID”

Press statement by Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe

Good morning,

To date, close to 38 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the WHO European Region, as well as 850 000 deaths.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to spread at very high rates across Europe, with 2 variants of concern continuing to displace other variants, increasing their reach and challenging us to continue to do more.

For the second consecutive week, fewer than 1 million new cases were reported as transmission continues to slow across the Region. The decrease in new cases in the past month is driven by countries that have implemented new measures to slow transmission.

New reported cases have declined by almost half since the end of 2020. However, to put that into perspective, the number of new cases in the Region now is 10 times higher than in May last year. And it is still the case that across the Region, most countries have very high or high levels of community transmission.

I know that many of you are eagerly awaiting a return to a new normal, where we are no longer restricted by measures limiting our freedom and the transmission of a deadly virus.

Others, a significant proportion of those who have survived COVID-19, are asking when and whether their health will be fully restored. These are the many thousands who are experiencing post-COVID conditions, also referred to as long COVID or post-COVID syndrome.

Today, we shed light on the fact that in some patients, the disability following SARS-CoV-2 infection lingers for months, with severe social, economic, health and occupational consequences.

The burden is real and it is significant: about 1 in 10 COVID-19 sufferers remains unwell after 12 weeks, and many for much longer.

As with any new disease, so much was and remains unknown. As the pandemic has evolved, professionals and patients alike have mapped a path in the dark through their experiences. Yet stories of those who should have recovered but whose lives were still affected by debilitating symptoms soon emerged.

Regrettably, some were met with disbelief or lack of understanding.

We need to listen and we need to understand. The sufferers of post-COVID conditions need to be heard if we are to understand the long-term consequences and recovery from COVID-19. It’s a clear priority for WHO, and of the utmost importance. It should be for every health authority.

We don’t have all the answers. We don’t yet know what percentage of patients have these longer-term effects. But we’re learning fast.

Earlier this month, WHO hosted a consultation on post COVID-19 conditions, focusing on recognition, research and rehabilitation. As we learn more, we need to make sure that patients who have had suspected or confirmed COVID-19 and who have persistent symptoms – new or changing – should have access to follow-up care. This is where primary health care has a particularly strong role to play.

Today we complement guidance we have published with a new resource for decision-makers on what we know about the condition and available responses and policies. Professor Martin McKee will shortly speak on this.

I am calling upon you, countries and institutions in the European Region, to come together as part of an integrated research agenda using harmonized data-collection tools and study protocols. This will be key to maximizing the impact of treatment and improving longer-term outcomes for patients.

As a next step, I will be convening the chief medical officers of all 53 countries in the European Region to set out a regional strategy to meet this goal.

A crucial part of this is listening to those who are experiencing post-COVID conditions. With us today, speaking from the United Kingdom, is Richard Roels, who had COVID-19 in March last year. Richard, thanks for joining us.

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