Estimated 114,000 in State have had long Covid or will in future – research

HSE slow to acknowledge ‘hidden iceberg of long-term illness’, Dáil told

Common symptoms of long Covid include fatigue, shortness of breath and cognitive dysfunction. Photograph: iStock

Common symptoms of long Covid include fatigue, shortness of breath and cognitive dysfunction. Photograph: iStock

 

Research conducted by the Oireachtas estimates that 114,000 people in Ireland have had long Covid or will experience it in the future.

The research, carried out by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service at the request of Independent TD Denis Naughten, was based on the World Health Organisation definition of long-term Covid, or post Covid-19 condition.

Under that definition, it occurs in individuals with Sars-CoV-2 infection three months from the onset of Covid-19, or with symptoms that last for at least two months and cannot be explained by an alternative diagnosis.

According to the research, the lower end estimates suggest a long Covid incidence rate of 10 per cent of all those who have contracted the disease.

Using this level, and applying it to all available data until January 22nd, it estimated that the number of people in Ireland who have the condition, or will develop symptoms, was 114,000.

Common symptoms of long Covid include fatigue, shortness of breath and cognitive dysfunction. Symptoms may also fluctuate or relapse over time.

These effects appear to occur irrespective of the initial severity of infection but occur more frequently in women, middle-aged people and in those with more symptoms initially.

Mr Naughten said long Covid was a “hidden iceberg of long-term illness and the HSE has been slow to acknowledge it”. He said he did not get a sense of urgency within the HSE in terms of tackling the condition.

He told the Dáil that not all of those affected would need to access disability or illness payments, but said the potential exposure of the State could be €925 million in illness benefit if all those affected applied for it.

‘Uncertainty’

In reply, Minister of State Mary Butler told Mr Naughten that Covid-19 was a new disease. She said while the majority of people who get it do recover, there was a minority who went on to develop ongoing symptoms.

“There is a lot of uncertainty in the international literature about how many people experience ongoing difficulties so it is extremely difficult to estimate the scale of it,” she said.

She said a working group had been set up to facilitate special long Covid clinics throughout the State, as well as specialists in this condition. The group would conclude its work over the next four weeks, she said.

Research on long Covid is still evolving. The 10 per cent figure quoted by the Oireachtas was suggested by a team led by Prof T Greenhalgh (published in the British Medical Journal in 2020) and quoted by the HSE in research it conducted last year. Another study conducted by Oxford University (and based on US cases) estimated that 37 per cent of people experienced at least one Covid-19 symptom in the three-to-six month period after Covid-19 infection.