In early March, as fear of Covid-19 increased, Layth Hishmeh remained unconcerned. At 26, after never feeling really uncomfortable, he was pretty confident that this new virus would hardly affect him and would even joke about it with colleagues.
Then he caught it. After recovering from the first fortnight with a cough and fever, he collapsed while shopping on the street. Over the next four months, he was attacked by an astonishing array of symptoms, including extreme fatigue, a foggy brain, an increased heart rate, and diarrhea.
"I couldn't get up for about a month and then couldn't get into the bathroom for another month," he said. "At the moment I'm not feeling well mentally, it's traumatic."
Mr. Hishmeh, who lives in Camberley, United Kingdom, is one of tens of thousands of people worldwide who have had severe fatigue and other symptoms that appear to be uncorrelated after months of being infected with Covid-19.
This poorly understood illness is referred to by medical experts as long-distance Covid, Langkovid or provisionally as "Post-Covid Syndrome" and is closely linked to chronic fatigue syndrome (ME). But it is already caught up in some controversy that has been persecuting this disease for decades.
With more and more people from all over the world turning to online support groups on Facebook, Twitter and Slack, researchers are now trying to determine the cause and how to treat it.
Recent analysis of the Covid symptom study showed that up to one in ten people with Covid-19 were sick more than three weeks after the symptoms first appeared. Some of the most harmful problems for the group of long-distance drivers are chronic fatigue, high temperatures, insomnia, headaches, brain fog, tingling and dizziness.
"People are stuck in bed and are unable to go to work or take care of their children," said Timothy Nicholson, a neuropsychiatrist at King’s College London, who is studying the phenomenon after suffering from coronavirus symptoms himself .
Cesar Abreu, a dancer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, found the effects of his protracted illness to be completely debilitating. Persistent fatigue combined with debilitating migraines and chest pain has led to several panic attacks.
"What worries me most is the persistence of the virus, the lasting impact it could have had on my body, and that I could stay that way and experience physical symptoms without a solution," he said from his Manhattan home.
Paul Garner, professor of infectious diseases at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, who blogged about his symptoms after the coronavirus for the British Medical Journal Last month: "I can not get up for more than three hours at a time, my arms and legs hiss constantly as if I were being injected with Szechuan peppercorns. ”
One of the problems for long-distance drivers is that they did not do a coronavirus swab test in the early stages of their illness, also because the government had stopped testing and tracking in the community.
This has made it difficult to draw a definite line between Sars-Cov-2 and the reported symptoms and has resulted in several people failing to meet the criteria for clinical trials.
The causes of the reported symptoms are unproven and controversial. While some point to post-viral syndrome – fatigue and weakness that persists after fighting a viral infection – as a likely explanation, others insist that Longcovid has unique properties.
"There is a pathology here that is not being investigated," said Clare Rayner, an occupational health advisor in the UK, pointing out that it appears to affect people's brain, heart and lungs for months.
John Geddes, professor of epidemiology at Oxford University, believes that a protracted illness is likely to be caused by the virus that gets into the brain's nerve cells. Others believe that an increased immune response to the virus can damage cells in key parts of the body.
Covid-19 would not be the first pandemic to cause debilitating symptoms well beyond the infection period. After this 2003 Sars outbreak in AsiaResearchers found that 60 percent of patients suffered from post-viral fatigue and insomnia a year after contracting the virus.
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014 led to the identification of a unique one "Post Ebola Syndrome"who shared some symptoms of chronic fatigue and persisted up to two years after infection.
Postviral syndromes are already controversial. For decades, people with chronic fatigue have felt that their illness was dismissed by doctors as a mental rather than a physical illness. According to an expert in the field, members of the ME community have sent death threats to scientists working on therapeutic treatments for the disease.
"We're trying to make sure that we don't get a split between mental and physical health this time, but we're still struggling with this legacy of dualism," said Dr. Nicholson. "Many people feel that their symptoms are not believed."
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Mr. Hishmeh is one of many of these patients. He said he felt completely unsupported by doctors during his illness. Several said he was suffering from mental health problems and was prescribing anxiety medication.
The Royal College of GPs has asked the UK government to provide additional funds to address the problem. Longcovid support groups have also written to the government calling for more research and improved medical care for those affected.
"The government needs to wake up and realize that we may be dealing with a really big problem that affects hundreds of thousands," said Ondine Sherwood, who has been infected with Covid-19 and has been suffering from fatigue and fever since late March.