Africa: What Public Health Officials Can Learn From a New Long Covid Survey

Abuja — A new survey on public awareness of long COVID by ‘Resolve to Save Lives” showed that among the 40% of Americans who were not vaccinated, seeing testimonials of those who suffer from long COVID inspired nearly two-thirds to consider the vaccine. A representative sample of nearly 2,000 Americans 18 and older took the survey between May 21 and June 10, 2021.

While most people who recover from COVID-19 get better within a few weeks, some people have health problems for a long time. Even people who were initially asymptomatic can start exhibiting them. Examples of the symptoms include difficulty thinking or concentrating, headache, difficulty breathing, cough, joint or muscle pain, fatigue, loss of smell, lightheadedness, and depression or anxiety.

Trying to avoid long COVID is a good reason to try to not catch COVID-19. This is especially true with the emergence and spread of the highly infectious Delta variant. Long COVID devastates lives, occupations, and incomes

Even though some people may not take precautions or get vaccinated because they think COVID symptoms would be mild if they contract it, long COVID shows that even people with mild or asymptomatic cases can suffer long-term. Trying to avoid long COVID, then, is a good reason to try to not catch COVID-19. This is especially true with the emergence and spread of the highly infectious Delta variant.

Long COVID devastates lives, occupations, and incomes. For instance, Paul Garner, a professor at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and Co-ordinating Editor of the Cochrane Infectious Diseases Group has documented his long COVID experience for the British Medical Journal.

After being diagnosed with COVID-19, receiving treatment and recovering, he had bouts of long COVID symptoms. His symptoms included acutely painful calf, upset stomach, tinnitus, pins and needles, aching all over, breathlessness, dizziness, arthritis in the hands.

A breakdown of the recent survey result shows that learning about these kinds of stories can motivate unvaccinated Americans. In the long COVID survey, 64% of Americans became more concerned about contracting COVID-19 from watching the testimonials.

Thirty-nine percent of those who were unvaccinated, including 31% who were vaccine hesitant, were motivated to consider getting the vaccine. The testimonials were most effective among 18 to 29-year-olds, Hispanics and urbanites.

Fifty percent of vaccine-hesitant Americans believe the message that “Getting the COVID-19 vaccine is the best way to prevent COVID-19 and its potential long-term complications”.

As a public health physician and COVID-19 vaccine advocate, I found the survey findings promising. They provide the evidence base to increase vaccine uptake and counter misinformation. What can public health officials do with this information? Here are four steps.

First, engage willing long COVID sufferers and survivors as vaccine advocates. A misleading aspect of this pandemic is that about 80% of those infected do not have any symptoms. This gives the false impression that COVID-19 is not as infectious, harmful or as fatal as it actually is.

Moreover, even those who are asymptomatic can still develop long COVID and that fact needs to be better publicized. The long COVID survey has shown the power of testimonies by sufferers. Governments, national public health institutes, civil society organizations, community-based organizations should leverage this.

This should begin by identifying long COVID sufferers willing to share their testimonies. COVID:Aid, the UK-based long COVID Charity set up to support and give a voice to individuals affected by Covid-19 across the UK, is a great organization to work with. Partnering with COVID:Aid will help identify sufferers and support them to share their stories.

Second, use findings of this survey to create targeted advocacy messaging for all demographics. Such messaging must be aspirational. It should not be designed to make the target groups feel unworthy. Rather, the messaging should be to make them aspire to be vaccinated. It should make the unvaccinated know the importance of being vaccinated and ending the pandemic. Health advocates must seize this opportunity to end the pandemic.

Third, prioritize social media as the medium for communicating the testimonials and targeted advocacy messaging. Vaccine hesitancy is quite common among the youths who use social media since they do not think they will suffer much if they contract it. Using social media in this way should involve working closely with social media firms and involving them in designing the messaging.

Already Facebook, Twitter, Instagram are involved in countering COVID-19-related misinformation and disinformation. Their involvement should include sharing videos of long COVID sufferers talking about their symptoms, how they cope and the benefits of being vaccinated.

Fourth, and related, use influencers to deliver long COVID social media testimonials. Globally, there are billions of social media users ruled by influencers. There are examples of social media influencers countering misinformation.

In Nigeria, the FactsMatterNG used Nollywood celebrity Actor Kate Henshaw (2.3 million Instagram followers). In Indonesia, social media influencers were among the first to receive COVID-19 vaccine. The Indonesian government took this route in world’s largest Muslim country due to the belief that influencers will post their experience online and help convey that vaccines are safe, effective, and allowed under Islamic law.