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Attitudes to long Covid are straight out of the ME playbook

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Dr Kelly Fearnley caught COVID-19 in November 2020, after being redeployed to work on a coronavirus ward. Ten months on, she’s still living with debilitating symptoms of the condition known as long Covid.

The latest estimates, published in June, suggest more than two million people in the UK have had long Covid since the pandemic began, while figures released by the Office for National Statistics in April show that more than 120,000 of those are NHS staff.

Dr Fearnley discusses with iNews her experience of being taken to hospital after becoming seriously unwell. Dr Fearnley had a high resting heart rate and wasn’t able to get out of bed. She had pins and needles and was experiencing attacks of breathlessness, as well as violent shaking of her entire body. Yet, after running tests, she says the senior doctor she saw made it clear they believed Dr Fearnley was suffering from anxiety.

“I was [treated as] an anxious little girl. My concerns weren’t taken seriously. Despite being a doctor myself, I felt let down by my colleagues at a time when I needed help but help wasn’t there,” Dr Fearnley said. “Sadly, I know my experience isn’t uncommon. I know a lot of long haulers have had their symptoms dismissed as anxiety.”

But Dr Fearnley’s experience is also not unique to long Covid patients. “There’s a long history in medicine of dismissing hard-to-diagnose and hard-to-treat patients as having psychological or behavioural problems,” says Brian Hughes, Professor of Psychology at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

“Historically, these problems have also been far more likely to emerge where illnesses primarily affect women,” he added.

There are countless examples of this, but the condition that’s been most closely linked to long Covid is myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) – also known as chronic fatigue syndrome or ME/CFS. 2020 research into GPs’ knowledge and understanding of the condition found that between a third and half of GPs did not accept ME as a “genuine clinical entity“. As a result, patients have continued to have their symptoms disbelieved or dismissed as psychological for decades. 

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Source: iNews, 9 September 2021

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