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ABC News
ABC News
political reporter Georgia Hitch

Long COVID inquiry hears definition of disease means people may miss window for early treatment

Health officials are developing an official strategy for how to deal with cases of long COVID. (ABC News: Mark Leonardi)

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has told an inquiry into long COVID the current definition means some people are missing the opportunity to intervene and treat the post-viral illness early.

The federal parliamentary inquiry is looking into long COVID and repeated COVID-19 infections and what the government could and should do to help prevent and support those who experience both.

One of the areas the inquiry is focused on is how to define long COVID given the symptoms, time line and severity can vary between patients.

Currently, Australia uses the World Health Organization's (WHO) definition of long COVID, which says it is when someone's symptoms continue or they develop new ones three months after their initial infection.

Mark Morgan, from the RACGP, said using this definition meant people who were experiencing "distressing" symptoms had to wait months to be diagnosed and receive treatment.

"If you wait to 12 weeks before you assign a label of long COVID then you've missed an opportunity to intervene earlier with the sort of strategies and rehabilitation that will work for a lot of people," he said.

"The symptoms beyond four weeks is where we start thinking, 'OK, could this person's distressing symptoms be linked to the COVID infection they had?''"

But he acknowledged that in the early period following COVID-19, it could be difficult to work out whether it was the infection or a different illness that was causing issues.

"Patients don't come and see GPs with long COVID, they come with distressing symptoms and signs, and that can be a whole swathe of different conditions that might or might not be related to a previous COVID infection, so we take a person-centre view rather than a labelling view," he said.

"I think clear definitions are required for the research.

"But from the point of view of treating people, it's about what they're experiencing and what's the best solution for those problems."

Last week Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly fronted the inquiry and confirmed federal health officials were in the process of developing an official strategy for how to deal with cases of long COVID.

He also said a clear definition of what long COVID was would be needed going forward, acknowledging the WHO definition was "broad".

Public health association seeking national long COVID register

The Public Health Association of Australia's (PHAA) Catherine Bennett said, from a research perspective, the three-month definition worked because it was being used internationally in studies.

However, she said, the definition would no doubt evolve and be refined as long COVID was better understood.

Catherine Bennett says a national register to log cases of long COVID is needed. (Supplied)

Among the PHAA's priorities, though, is the need for the government to establish a national register to monitor how common long COVID is and what symptoms people experience.

Professor Bennett said the register would allow researchers to look at what, if any, social and economic risk factors were associated with long COVID or repeat infections.

"Those are the things that could be captured if you set up a register of people with long COVID," she said.

"We do need to make sure research identifies and targets groups that are most vulnerable."

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