Long Covid sheds light on chronic illness: A Q&A with Meghan O’Rourke

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Jessica DuLong

Published March 22, 2022

As Covid-19 infection rates fall, doctors and patients are sifting through the wreckage of symptoms left behind. Shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pain, fatigue and brain fog—those are just some of the ongoing complaints of a growing number of people, many of whom had only mild cases of acute Covid-19.

“Long Covid,” also known as post-acute sequelae of Covid-19, is associated with a whole host of problems involving multiple body systems, much like other chronic diseases that often go unrecognized and undiagnosed. Today, doctors and scientists are seeing epic spikes in immune dysregulation following Covid-19.

The complex and confounding nature of chronic illness is all too familiar to poet and author Meghan O’Rourke. In her new book, “The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness,” O’Rourke integrated her experiences of coping with undiagnosed, incurable long-term sickness with reporting on the role of chronic illness in Western medicine.

O’Rourke’s call for medical system changes could help not just the 24 million to 50 million people in the United States already struggling with chronic illness but also the increasing ranks of those affected by long Covid.

Estimates of the frequency of long-term symptoms and conditions after Covid-19 infection range from 5% to 80%, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The World Health Organization‘s estimates range from 10% to 20%.

Whatever the final numbers, medical recognition of post-Covid conditions is driving new research into the long-term effects of infection. These findings, O’Rourke argued, could advance diagnosis and treatment of other chronic diseases as well.