Modelling indicates a 307% increase in cases identified between 2020 and 2021

The World Health Organization (WHO) has called on countries to take post COVID-19 condition seriously by urgently investing in research, recovery and rehabilitation.

New modelling conducted for WHO by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine in the US, shows that in the first two years of the pandemic, at least 17 million individuals across the 53 Member States of the WHO European Region may have experienced post-COVID-19 condition, also known as long COVID.

Put another way, an estimated 17 million people met the WHO criteria of a new case of long COVID with symptom duration of at least three months in 2020 and 2021.

The modelling indicates a 307% increase in new long COVID cases identified between 2020 and 2021, driven by the rapid increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases from late 2020 and throughout 2021.

The modelling also suggests females are twice as likely as males to experience long COVID. Furthermore, the risk increases dramatically among severe COVID-19 cases needing hospitalisation, with one in three females and one in five males likely to develop long COVID.

“While there is much we still need to learn about long COVID, especially how it presents in vaccinated versus unvaccinated populations and how it impacts re-infections, this data highlights the urgent need for more analysis, more investment, more support, and more solidarity with those who experience this condition,” said Dr Hans Henri Kluge, WHO’s regional director for Europe.

“Millions of people in our region, straddling Europe and Central Asia, are suffering debilitating symptoms many months after their initial COVID-19 infection. They cannot continue to suffer in silence. Governments and health partners must collaborate to find solutions based on research and evidence,” he added.

Post COVID-19 condition or long COVID refers collectively to the constellation of long-term symptoms that some people experience after they have had COVID-19. While most people who develop COVID-19 fully recover, it is estimated that 10-20% develop a variety of mid- and long-term effects like fatigue, breathlessness and cognitive dysfunction.

Long COVID can also directly and indirectly affect mental health and the condition can also affect an individual’s ability to perform daily activities such as work or household chores.