Thousands of people with long-term Covid travel abroad to spend huge sums of money on unproven treatments such as ‘blood washing’, prompting warnings from experts and doctors.
According to a study by the British Medical Journal and ITV News, patients go to private clinics in Cyprus, Germany and Switzerland for procedures such as blood filter treatment and anticoagulant therapy.
However, experts have expressed concerns about whether such invasive and expensive therapies should be offered without sufficient evidence.
“I am concerned that these patients have been receiving therapies that have not been assessed with modern scientific methods – well-designed clinical trials,” said Beverley Hunt, medical director of the Thrombosis UK charity. “In this situation, the treatment may or may not benefit them, but, worryingly, it also carries the risk of harm.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between 10% and 20% of people experience symptoms for at least two months after an acute Covid infection.
In the UK, Covid is defined by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) guidelines as having new or persistent symptoms four weeks or more after the onset of the illness.
The Office for National Statistics estimates that the number of people with long-term Covid has risen from 1.3 million in January this year to 2 million in May.
Symptoms may include fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of concentration and joint pain. In addition to affecting daily activities, the condition can be severely limiting for some people.
Researchers, health experts and clinicians are struggling to explore potential treatments for long-term Covid, but because the condition is still new, there is no internationally agreed-upon treatment path.
Apheresis, a blood filtering treatment normally used for lipid disorders, involves inserting needles into each arm and passing the blood through a filter, separating the red blood cells from the plasma. The plasma is then recombined with red blood cells and returned to the body through another vein.
Gitte Boumeester, a psychiatrist in training in Almelo, the Netherlands, tried it after developing severe long Covid symptoms.
After undergoing treatment at The Long Covid Center in Cyprus at a cost of over €50,000 (£42,376), she returned home with no improvement in her symptoms. She received six rounds of apheresis, as well as nine rounds of hyperbaric oxygen therapy and an intravenous vitamin drip at the Poseidonia clinic adjacent to the clinic.
Boumeester was also advised to buy hydroxychloroquine as an early treatment package in case she was re-infected with Covid, despite a Cochrane review concluding that it is “unlikely” that the drug has any benefit in preventing the disease. .
dr. Beate Jaeger, an internist, began treating long-term Covid patients with apheresis in February last year at her clinic in Mülheim, Germany, after reading reports that Covid is causing problems with blood clotting. She told the BMJ she has now treated thousands at her clinic after patients shared their stories on social media and through word of mouth.
Jaeger accepts the treatment is experimental for long-term Covid but said the trials are taking too long now that the pandemic has left millions of patients worldwide with the condition.
Chris Witham, a 45-year-old Covid patient from Bournemouth, England, spent around £7,000 on apheresis treatment (including travel and accommodation costs) in Kempten, Germany, last year. “I would have sold my house and given it away to get well without a second thought,” he said. The treatment did not improve his long Covid symptoms, the BMJ reported.
While some doctors and researchers believe apheresis and anticoagulants could be promising treatments for long-term Covid, others worry that increasingly desperate patients are spending life-changing amounts on invasive, unproven treatments.
Shamil Haroon, clinical lecturer in primary care at the University of Birmingham and researcher of the Therapies for Long Covid in non-hospitalized patients (TLC) study, believes that such “experimental” treatment should only be performed in the context of a clinical trial. trial.
“It’s not surprising that people who used to function very well, who are now weakened, can’t work, can’t support themselves financially, would seek treatment elsewhere,” he said.
“It’s a perfectly rational response to a situation like this. But people could potentially be out of business if they access these treatments, for which there is limited to no evidence of effectiveness.”
Marcus Klotz, co-founder of the Long Covid Center, told The BMJ: “As a clinic, we neither advertise nor promote. We accept patients who have microcirculation problems and want to be treated with HELP apheresis… If a patient requires a prescription, it will be individually assessed by our physician or the patient is referred to other specialist physicians as appropriate.”
A spokesperson for the Poseidonia Clinic said all treatments offered are “always based on medical and clinical evaluation by our physicians and clinical nutritionist, diagnosis via blood test with laboratory follow-up in accordance with good medical practice.”