Scientists have found that organ damage persisted in 59% of long COVID-19 patients a year after initial symptoms, even in those not severely affected when first diagnosed with the virus, according to a new study.
“The study also found that 29% of patients with long COVID had multi-organ impairment, with persistent symptoms and reduced function at six and twelve months,” it said.
The comprehensive study of organ impairment in long COVID patients over 12 months focussed on patients reporting extreme breathlessness, cognitive dysfunction and poor health-related quality of life, it said.
According to the study, of the 536 patients who were studied, 13% were hospitalised when first diagnosed with COVID-19, with 32% of people taking part in the study being healthcare workers.
The study found that of the 536 patients, 331, or 62%, were identified with organ impairment six months after their initial diagnosis. It is published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.
These patients were followed up six months later with a 40-minute multi-organ MRI scan (Perspectum's CoverScan), analysed in Oxford, the study said.
“Symptoms were common at six and twelve months and associated with female gender, younger age and single organ impairment,” said Amitava Banerjee, Professor of Clinical Data Science at the UCL Institute of Health Informatics, the U.K.. “The study reported a reduction in symptoms between six and 12 months,” it said.
Extreme breathlessness came down from being reported in 38% of the patients to 30% of patients, the study said, while cognitive dysfunction came down from 48% to 38%. Poor health-related quality of life came down from 57% to 45% of patients, the study said. "Several studies confirm persistence of symptoms in individuals with long COVID up to one year. We now add that three in five people with long COVID have impairment in at least one organ, and one in four have impairment in two or more organs, in some cases without symptoms," said Mr. Banerjee.
"Impact on quality of life and time off work, particularly in healthcare workers, is a major concern for individuals, health systems and economies. Many healthcare workers in our study had no prior illness, but of 172 such participants, 19 were still symptomatic at follow-up and off work at a median of 180 days," Mr. Banerjee said.
“The underlying mechanisms of long COVID remain elusive, said the researchers, who did not find evidence by symptoms, blood investigations or MRI to clearly define long COVID subtypes,” the study said.
They said that future research must consider associations between symptoms, multi-organ impairment and function in larger cohorts. “Organ impairment in long COVID has implications for symptoms, quality of life and longer-term health, signalling the need for prevention and integrated care for long COVID patients,” Mr. Banerjee said.