Thousands of people experiencing symptoms of long Covid are travelling abroad to seek an experimental “blood washing” treatment despite insufficient evidence that it works, according to an investigation carried out by the BMJ medical journal.
Patients are travelling to private clinics in Cyprus, Germany and Switzerland for apheresis, a blood filtering treatment normally used for patients with lipid disorders that have not responded to drugs, and for anti-clotting therapy.
But experts have questioned whether these invasive therapies should be offered without sufficient evidence.
The World Health Organisation has estimated that between 10 and 20 per cent of patients suffer symptoms for at least two months after an acute Covid-19 infection — a phenomenon now commonly known as long Covid.
Symptoms of long Covid can include fatigue, muscle weakness, breathing and sleeping difficulties, memory problems, and loss of smell or taste.
There is currently no treatment for the condition.
Doctors and researchers “worry desperate patients are spending life-changing sums on invasive, unproven treatments,” a statement from the BMJ said.
Such “experimental” treatments should only be done in the context of a clinical trial, Shamil Haroon, a researcher on the Therapies for Long Covid in Non-hospitalised Patients (TLC) trial said.
“It’s unsurprising that people who were previously highly functioning, who are now debilitated, can’t work, can’t financially support themselves, would seek treatments elsewhere. It’s a completely rational response to a situation like this. But people could potentially go bankrupt accessing these treatments, for which there is limited to no evidence of effectiveness,” he said.
Apheresis and associated travel costs are so expensive that patients are setting up fundraising pages on websites such as GoFundMe in order to raise the money, the BMJ found.
Some patients were found to have spent approximately £7,000 (€8,300) on apheresis treatment (including travel and accommodation costs).
Doctors and researchers are also concerned about the lack of follow-up care for patients when they leave clinics after being prescribed anticoagulation drugs.
Robert Ariens, professor of vascular biology at the University of Leeds school of medicine, said the clinics offering apheresis and anticoagulation therapy are “prematurely” providing treatments and more scientific research is needed.