Doctors now believe that coronavirus can cause long-term damage to the heart, spine and kidneys, and can cause lasting mobility and mental health issues.
Research from Edinburgh University and in Northern Italy has confirmed evidence of long-term damage caused by coronavirus infection.
In Edinburgh, heart scans of coronavirus patients have revealed a range of abnormalities which can lead to circulatory problems and even heart failure.
Doctors used ultrasound techniques to examine the hearts of more than 1,200 coronavirus patients from 69 countries, and found heart problems in 55 percent. In seven percent the abnormalities were regarded as severe.
Even with those having pre-existing heart conditions excluded, Dr Anda Bularga who worked on the study said: “The proportion with an abnormal scan was really high. Half of them had an abnormal scan, which makes us think this could be because of the viral infection.”
The echocardiogram scans found that more than a third of the patients showed long-term damage to the ventricles, the heart’s main blood-pumping chambers. A further three percent suffered heart attacks, and three percent showed inflamed heart tissue.
Doctors worry that the real rate of long-term damage to the heart in coronavirus patients may be even higher, as doctors may in some cases have been reluctant to order the tests which require close contact with patients.
Speaking on the BBC’s Today programme on Radio 4, consultant cardiologist Dr Mark Dweck of the British Heart Foundation Centre of Research Excellence at the University of Edinburgh, who led the programme, said: “These patients had severe COVID-19 infection requiring hospital admission. One in eight had severe heart damage and our assumption is that the virus was causing that damage.”
Though the research didn’t suggest a causal link between coronavirus and long-term damage to the heart, it is known that other viruses can damage the heart and other organs. The British Heart Foundation is supporting a study into pathways to treatment.
“Damage to the heart is known to occur in severe flu, but we were surprised to see so many patients with damage to their heart with Covid-19,” said Dr Dweck. “We now need to understand the exact mechanism of this damage, whether it is reversible and what the long-term consequences of Covid-19 infection are on the heart.”
Dr Dweck added: “We have very very good treatments for heart failure now, so if we can identify the COVID-19 patients where the heart is involved there is the potential to give them the therapies that can help them to get better quicker. So this is an important opportunity for us to improve the care of patients.”
The study showed that one in three patients who has an echocardiogram subsequently had their heart treatment changed, demonstrating the value of heart scans where there is any suspected problem.
Previous studies have suggested that coronavirus can cause long-term damage to the heart as well as the lungs and brain – reports from China and Italy suggested that up to 20 percent of COVID-19 patients suffered heart damage.
It’s thought that the virus causes inflammation which causes the heart to work faster to circulate oxygen around the body, causing wear to the heart itself and depriving other organs of oxygen.
Meanwhile a study in Italy suggests that COVID-19 could cause other long-term damage, including to the kidneys and spine, and systematic effects such as psychosis, tiredness and mobility problems.
The study in Lombardy, the area of northern Italy which was one of the worst affected by the pandemic, suggests that some patients may never fully recover from the effects of coronavirus. The virus, it’s assumed, is infecting all parts of the body, not just the lungs, and so shouldn’t be thought of as a purely respiratory disease.
Previous studies in northern Italy have pointed to a 58 percent increase in the number of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests (OHCAs) in the first 40 days of the COVID-19 pandemic there, as compared with the same period last year.
But now the instances of long-term damage are being brought to light, and do not seem to be limited to older age groups. Symptoms can show themselves as impairment of concentration or mobility. The concern is that people who don’t regard themselves as vulnerable may in fact be opening themselves up to long-term damage by neglecting basic hygiene procedures such as social distancing, hand washing and wearing masks.
While infection rates in Italy are now reducing, there are fears of a second wave of infection, with two of the major hospitals in Lombardy reporting new cases.
Dr Roberto Cosentini, head of emergencies at Papa Giovanni XXIII Hospital in the Alpine province of Bergamo, which has had 6,000 coronavirus deaths, told Sky News: “Initially, we thought it was a bad flu, then we thought it was a bad flu with a very bad pneumonia, but subsequently we discovered that it is a systemic illness with vessel damage in the whole body with renal involvement, cerebral involvement.”
“So we are seeing other acute manifestations of renal failure that require dialysis; or stroke, and then acute myocardial infarction, so a lot of complications or other manifestations of the virus.
“And also now we see a significant proportion of the population with chronic damage from the virus.”
Dr Cosentini gave the example of a patient who became severely ill with coronavirus but recovered after four months. However he still has trouble breathing and suffers periods of severe exhaustion.
The Italian doctors think that even the youngest and mildest infected may suffer from long-terms damage, some of which may not become apparent for years, and that the result may be a decline in health of entire populations.
Find out more here and here about the studies that lead doctors to believe that coronavirus can cause long-term damage to the heart, spine and kidneys, and can cause lasting mobility and mental health issues.