Japan starts long COVID study while guiding doctors on treatment for sufferers

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Growing number of sufferers

Up to March, about 4.6 million people across Japan had been infected in the country's sixth coronavirus wave, mostly by the Omicron variant. While the peak of the wave has now passed, a growing number of people who appear to be suffering from lingering effects after Omicron infection are turning to visit medical institutions for help. Symptoms include taste and smell disorders, fatigue, and poor concentration.

Japan's health ministry has poured 200 million yen into an intensive study in a bid to learn more about long COVID and its impact on the medical system. Starting in April, experts have been studying the type of symptoms that afflict sufferers after Omicron infection, as well as the complications that arise and their causes, all with an eye to future infection trends.

The ministry says it wants to get a fuller picture of long COVID and ensure that patients receive proper treatment.

Possibility of more to come

Yokoyama Akihito, a professor at Kochi Medical School, led a previous study into the condition. He says the medical profession is still largely in the dark on long COVID, but the number of sufferers could increase dramatically because the number of people infected with Omicron was considerably higher than with other variants in earlier waves.

Yokoyama notes that a relatively high percentage of younger people were infected with Omicron, and that many are now battling long COVID while they work. He says the new study could be crucial to helping them. He also notes that studies overseas suggest vaccination can reduce incidence of the condition.

Working generations most affected

Mirai Clinic in Fukuoka City treats long COVID sufferers as outpatients and saw about 250 patients over the course of a year. Out of this group, 37 are suspected of having Omicron-related long COVID. The clinic says that common symptoms include inflammation of the upper pharynx, fatigue throughout the entire body, poor concentration, dizziness, and headaches.

The clinic says the age bracket spans people in junior high school through the elderly, with an average age of 43 – in other words, people who are still working. In some cases, people have been forced to take a leave of absence from their jobs or even quit. The clinic points out that even in situations where the infection itself is mild, the effects afterwards can be severe and take a long time to treat.

"I can imagine how distressing it is for sufferers who can't work for a long time," says Imai Kazuaki, the director of the clinic. "For some, the problem is compounded by the indignation of people around them who suspect them of being lazy and not wanting to work. Anyone can potentially suffer from long COVID. I don't want people to suffer alone. In many cases, getting early treatment can help, so I encourage people to do so."

Long COVID guideline

On April 28, the ministry released official guidelines on long COVID to help medical workers diagnose symptoms and support patients in their efforts to resume normal lives. The aim is to create an environment where sufferers can get treatment as soon as possible.

What's inside?

The guidelines contain the latest knowledge on the subject. They define long COVID as a condition where symptoms continue for at least two months after infection, and they list the most common as respiratory issues, taste and smell problems, mental health problems, headaches and other pains, and skin issues such as hair loss.

They also contain detailed advice on how to provide medical support, such as rehabilitation, so patients can return to work. The ministry says the guidelines will be updated when new data becomes available.

"People affected by long COVID may suffer from serious anxiety, and that could lead to other problems," says Okabe Nobuhiko, a doctor who edited the guidelines. "I'd like to see medical workers make use of this to find appropriate medical treatment."

The complete guidelines can be found in the ministry's website.

*Related article: Study finds nearly quarter of patients suffer from long COVID (Nov. 30, 2021)

This information is accurate as of May 6, 2022.