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New Study Shows a Simple Health Intervention to Lower Risk of Long COVID

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A comprehensive study of UK adults published today in The BMJ found that vaccination following infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes covid-19, is linked to a lower risk of long covid symptoms.

They emphasize that this observational evidence cannot be used to infer causality, but that immunization “may contribute to a reduction in the population health burden of long covid, at least in the first few months after vaccination.”

Coronavirus vaccines are effective in lowering rates of infection, transmission, hospital admission, and death. Long covid appears to be reduced in sick people following vaccination, but the effectiveness of immunization against pre-existing long covid is less certain.

According to the latest survey from the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS), 44 percent of people with long-term covid had experienced symptoms for at least a year, with two-thirds reporting symptoms severe enough to impair daily activities.

Therefore, a group of investigators set out to estimate relationships between covid-19 vaccination and protracted covid symptoms in persons infected with SARS-CoV-2 prior to vaccination.

They used ONS data from 28,356 persons aged 18 to 69 years (average age 46; 56 percent women; 89 percent white) who had tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 infection and had at least one covid-19 vaccine dose.

They then followed up on the presence of long covid symptoms for seven months (February to September 2021).

At least once during follow-up, 6,729 participants (24 percent) had long covid symptoms of any severity.

Before vaccination, the chances of having a long covid were relatively constant throughout time.

A first vaccine dosage was linked to a 13 percent reduction in the risk of long covid, but the data does not indicate whether this reduction was sustained over the next 12 weeks until a second vaccine dose was given.

A second vaccine dose was linked to a 9 percent reduction in the risk of long covid, and this benefit was maintained for at least nine weeks.

Similar outcomes were observed when the focus was on chronic covid severe enough to limit day-to-day activities.

Due to the observational nature of the study, causality cannot be established, nor can the researchers rule out the potential that other unmeasured factors, such as the uptake of a second vaccine dosage, may have influenced their findings.

However, results were constant when sociodemographic parameters, health-related factors, vaccine type, and time between illness and vaccination were included, indicating that they can withstand scrutiny.

“Our results suggest that vaccination of people previously infected may be associated with a reduction in the burden of long covid on population health, at least in the first few months after vaccination,” the researchers write.

They ask for more research into the long-term association between vaccination and long-term covid, as well as investigations “to understand the biological mechanisms underpinning any improvements in symptoms after vaccination, which may contribute to the development of therapeutics for long covid.”

In a related editorial, researchers wonder if vaccines could be used to treat long-term covid.

They admit that benefits may occur in some people but not all, and that the processes underlying changes in long-term covid symptoms following vaccination are currently unknown.

They argue that unless a clear reason is established, vaccination to lower the risk of reinfection is still crucial for patients with extended covid, and that the benefits are likely to outweigh the risks.

“Unfortunately, many unknowns remain about the long term prognosis of long covid,” they write, “including the effect of booster immunizations or recurrent covid-19,” and they advocate for more research “before we can hope to anticipate the effects of vaccination on individuals.”

“Unfortunately, many unknowns remain about the long term prognosis of long covid, including the effect of booster vaccines or recurrent covid-19,” they point out, and they call for more research “before we can hope to predict the effects of vaccination on individuals.”

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