Known as ‘long haulers’, some people continue to experience symptoms of illness for months after recovering from COVID-19.
Nehna Singh (27) still relies on chronic fatigue medication and immune boosters eight weeks after contracting COVID-19. Picture: Kaylynn Pal/Eyewitness News
CAPE TOWN - Long after being infected with COVID-19 and recovering from the worst impact, some patients continue to experience symptoms of illness, a medical mystery, which scientists are still trying to crack.
This group of people is often referred to as ‘long haulers’ and can experience prolonged symptoms associated with the disease or develop new, unexplained ones.
They often report a multitude of symptoms, including fever, crushing fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of taste and smell, anxiety, brain fog, loss of appetite, as well as unexplained allergies - even after the infection has cleared.
Yaseen Kippie always considered himself physically fit. But after contracting COVID-19, he ended up in a coma and suffered two heart attacks.
Kippie is only 24 years old.
“My first memory is of being unable to move because I had been paralysed. I thought it was only because of the coma, but it was because during my coma I had contracted a syndrome called Guillain-Barré syndrome,” he told Eyewitness News.
Nearly five months on, the Cape Town-based journalist is still dealing with post-acute COVID-19 symptoms.
He has difficulty breathing, but that’s not his only struggle.
“There are different patches on my body that I just cannot feel. I’m unable to move my left arm, my hands. I’m used to driving, but cannot drive now, I have to take an Uber. I struggle to dress myself.”
24-year-old Yaseen Kippie is unable to move his left arm after contracting COVID-19 almost five months ago. Picture: Kaylynn Palm/Eyewitness News.
Kippie’s condition is consistent with what is called Long COVID, where patients battle illness for weeks or even months after the expected recovery period.
“Between about 8% and 16% of people who recover from COVID suffer from this Long COVID,” University of the Western Cape virologist Professor Burtram Fielding explained.
“So they would have some symptoms that still persist, the biggest two are fatigue and shortness of breath. Between 40% and 60% of people suffering from Long COVID actually have those two symptoms.
“Then there is joint pain and chest pain for about 20% of people, and cough and loss of smell is experienced by 15% to 18% of people who have Long COVID.”
ADAPTING TO A NEW NORMAL
A long recovery period is the reality for Nehna Singh.
The 27-year-old went from being an active runner to not being able to perform simple tasks such as moving a table or sweeping a room.
“I am stressed about what is my new normal. How do I adapt to my new body? There are days when I just feel very lost and scared. But I don’t linger on that too long. I move and try and sit in the sun," Singh told Eyewitness News.
Eight weeks after being diagnosed with COVID-19, Nehna Singh tires quickly and is unable to perform simple physical tasks. Picture: Kaylynn Palm/Eyewitness News.
Singh tested positive for COVID-19 in the first week of January and it didn’t take long for her health to deteriorate.
Eight weeks on and she still relies on medication and immune boosters.
Singh recently found out that her heartbeat is irregular, which she attributes to the COVID diagnosis.
“Every day is a good day and a bad day. Walking from my desk to the bathroom is a one-minute walk and can tire me out. I need energy supplements and chronic fatigue medication.”
By all standards, Singh and Kippie - who considered themselves physically active and fit prior to being infected - would typically not fall into the high-risk COVID-19 group.
But as experts point out, the world is still learning about the disease and this process requires collaboration from different medical fields.
Around the world, research studies are under way to determine underlying causes of these prolonged symptoms and why certain people are vulnerable to them.
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