Vaccines are critically important in the battle against COVID, but there’s one area where they’re disappointing.
A study of more than 13 million people who had had COVID found that vaccination against the virus reduced the risk of death by 34 per cent. But when researchers measured vaccines’ effectiveness in preventing long COVID, the results were much less rosy.
Compared with unvaccinated patients who had been infected with the virus, vaccines reduced the risk of long COVID by just 15 per cent. In more positive findings, vaccines were shown to be very effective in preventing some of the worst aspects of long COVID, reducing the incidence of lung disorders by 49 per cent and blood-clotting issues by 56 per cent.
But the researchers found that many vaccinated people who had experienced only mild symptoms were left with debilitating, lingering problems that affected the heart, brain, lungs and other parts of the body.
The research was conducted by the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis and the Veterans Affairs St Louis Health Care System, and was published this week in Nature Medicine.
“Vaccinations remain critically important in the fight against COVID-19,” said first author Dr Ziyad Al-Aly, a clinical epidemiologist at Washington University. “Vaccinations reduce the risk of hospitalisation and dying from COVID-19.
“But vaccines seem to only provide modest protection against long COVID.”
Read: Symptoms of long COVID
He said that anyone recovering from COVID should continue to monitor their health and see a healthcare provider if lingering symptoms made it difficult to carry out their usual daily activities.
The researchers classified patients as being fully vaccinated if they had received two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine.
The effect of boosters was not able to be assessed as the research was conducted before third and fourth jabs were widely available.
“Now that we understand that COVID-19 can have lingering health consequences even among the vaccinated, we need to move toward developing mitigation strategies that can be implemented for the longer term since it does not appear that COVID-19 is going away any time soon,” said Dr Al-Aly, who is also the chief of research and development at the VA St. Louis Health Care System.
“We need to urgently develop and deploy additional layers of protection that could be sustainably implemented to reduce the risk of long COVID.”
He said other forms of protection could include nasal vaccines that are more convenient or potent than injections, other types of vaccines and drugs developed to specifically minimise the risks of long COVID.
“Getting COVID-19, even among vaccinated people, seems almost unavoidable nowadays,” said Dr Al-Aly. “Our current approach will likely leave a large number of people with chronic and potentially disabling conditions that have no treatments.
“This will not only affect people’s health, but their ability to work, life expectancy, economic productivity and societal wellbeing. We need to have a candid national conversation about the consequences of our current approach.”
More than 524 million people have been infected with the virus and more than six million have died.
“Let’s say SARS-CoV-2 is here for 10 years,” Dr Al-Aly said. “People are sick and tired of masking and social distancing, and it’s simply not sustainable to ask that they continue to do so.
“We need to come up with additional layers of protection that allow us to resume normal life while co-existing with the virus. Current vaccines are only part of the solution.”
The study also found:
- the kidneys, blood clotting, mental health, metabolism and the gastrointestinal and musculoskeletal systems were also affected by long COVID
- long COVID risks were 17 per cent higher among vaccinated immunocompromised people compared with previously healthy, vaccinated people
- an analysis of 3667 vaccinated patients who had been hospitalised with COVID were 2.5 times more likely to die than people hospitalised with influenza. They also had a 27 per cent higher risk of long COVID in the first 30 days after diagnosis.
A study by the University of California found that people with a history of hospitalisations, diabetes and higher body mass index (BMI) were most likely to develop long COVID.
Surprisingly, it found that ethnicity, older age and socioeconomic status were not associated with the syndrome, even though those characteristics have been linked with the risk of severe illness and death from an initial COVID infection.
It surmised that while lower socioeconomic patients had only poor access to healthcare before their diagnosis, they had better access to care following their diagnosis.
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