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US study: COVID-19 raises risk of long-term brain injury

Medical workers treat patients in the COVID-19 ward at the US Department of Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare system campus and medical center in West Roxbury, Massachusetts on Jan 11, 2022. (JOSEPH PREZIOSO / AFP)

CHICAGO / GENEVA / SANTIAGO – People who had COVID-19 are at higher risk for a host of brain injuries a year later compared with people who were never infected by the coronavirus, a finding that could affect millions of Americans, US researchers reported on Thursday.

The year-long study, published in Nature Medicine, assessed brain health across 44 different disorders using medical records without patient identifiers from millions of US veterans.

Brain and other neurological disorders occurred in 7 percent more of those who had been infected with COVID compared with a similar group of veterans who had never been infected 

Brain and other neurological disorders occurred in 7 percent more of those who had been infected with COVID compared with a similar group of veterans who had never been infected. That translates into roughly 6.6 million Americans who had brain impairments linked with their COVID infections, the team said.

"The results show the devastating long-term effects of COVID-19," senior author Dr Ziyad Al-Aly of Washington University School of Medicine said in a statement.

Al-Aly and colleagues at Washington University School of Medicine and the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System studied medical records from 154,000 US veterans who had tested positive for COVID from March 1, 2020 to Jan 15, 2021.

They compared these with records from 5.6 million patients who did not have COVID during the same time frame, and another group of 5.8 million people from the period just before the coronavirus arrived in the United States.

Al-Aly said prior studies looked at a narrower group of disorders, and were focused largely on hospitalized patients, whereas his study included both hospitalized and non-hospitalized patients.

Memory impairments, commonly referred to as brain fog, were the most common symptom. Compared with the control groups, people infected with COVID had a 77 percent higher risk of developing memory problems.

An elderly couple receive a BioNtech Pfizer COVID-19 jab as a booster in Santiago, on Feb 7, 2022. (JAVIER TORRES / AFP)

Chile

Chile will offer the population at risk an annual vaccine against COVID-19 starting in October, Chilean Health Minister Ximena Aguilera said Thursday.

The vaccine will be available much like the annual flu shot, she said.

"An annual vaccine aimed at vulnerable groups is being incorporated in a manner similar to the influenza vaccination program and is entering the National Immunization Program," the official said in an interview with local radio Cooperativa.

"We are not ruling out that in the future there will be greater availability for the rest of the population to be vaccinated voluntarily," she said, adding that a bivalent vaccine will be used in the annual inoculation plan against COVID-19.

Chile considers the population at risk to be anyone over 60 years of age, healthcare workers, people with chronic diseases or weakened immune systems, and the obese, said Aguilera.

According to the Chilean Health Ministry, the bivalent vaccine has in its formulation the possibility of protecting against the Omicron variant of the virus.

The South American country has logged 4,594,519 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and a death toll of 60,974 from the disease since the onset of the outbreak. 

WHO

The World Health Organization on Thursday warned again against complacency in fighting COVID-19, urging for coordinated action and political commitments to save lives and prevent economic and health damage from the ongoing pandemic.

"(COVID-19) pandemic is not over, but the end is in sight … Being able to see the end does not mean we are at the end," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reiterated at a press briefing on Thursday.

He cited as reasons that the pandemic is still inflicting a death toll of 10,000 per week, most of which could be prevented, while large vaccination gaps exist especially in low- and middle-income countries.

"That means everyone needs to use, when needed, the simple tools that are available to stay safe: distancing, masks and ventilation. And it means everyone needs access to the medical tools to stay safe: vaccines, tests and treatments," he added.

The WHO chief's remarks came as a working group of ACT-Accelerator Facilitation Council released on Thursday its latest report, warning that the global pandemic is not over and that it's no time for COVID-19 complacency.

READ MORE: EU health regulator says COVID-19 pandemic not over