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Long COVID-19 patients traveling abroad for unproven ‘blood washing’ treatment: Study

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Investigators with the British Medical Journal have found that patients experiencing debilitating symptoms of so-called long COVID-19 are spending thousands of dollars and travelling abroad for experimental “blood washing” treatment in the hope of a cure.

The BMJ say the experimental treatment known as apheresis - a blood-filtering treatment which doctors normally use on patients with lipid disorders who don’t respond to medication or anti-clotting therapies - may be doing more harm than good, according to their report published Tuesday.

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The investigations unit of The British Medical Journal and British television network ITV's news division, which worked on the project, found thousands of people traveling to private clinics in Cyprus, Germany, and Switzerland for anti-clotting therapy and apheresis to treat the debilitating symptoms of long COVID-19, which include fatigue, chest pain, breathing difficulty, and muscle pain.

The ‘blood washing’ treatment involves a needle going into each of the patient’s arms. From there, blood coming out of one vein passes through a filter that separates the red blood cells from the plasma.

The procedure filters the plasma before recombining it with the blood cells and returning it to the other vein.

Such treatments seem to be based on a hypothesis that ‘microclots’ found in the plasma of people with long COVID may be responsible for their symptoms, investigators said in a news release.

But those experts contacted by the BMJ and ITV News said more research is needed to understand how microclots form and whether they are causing long COVID symptoms.

That isn’t stopping people from trying apheresis though. Investigators with The BMJ and ITV News spoke with several people who’ve tried blood washing — discovering that patients are receiving mixed results.

Gitte Boumeester, a trainee psychiatrist in the Netherlands, had to quit her job in November 2021 due to the debilitating after-effects of her coronavirus infection. Boumeester told the BMJ she found out about apheresis from a Facebook group for long COVID-19 patients.

She spent more than $50,000 on treatments at The Long Covid Center in Cyprus before returning home with no improvement in her symptoms, according to the study. This included six rounds of apheresis, nine sessions of hyperbaric oxygen therapy, and an intravenous vitamin drip at a private clinic next door to The Long Covid Center.

Study authors add that Boumeester also had to sign a consent form, which lawyers and clinicians describe as “inadequate,” and was also asked to purchase hydroxychloroquine before her treatment began — in case of coronavirus reinfection.

“We as a clinic do neither advertise, nor promote. We accept patients that have microcirculation issues and want to be treated with HELP apheresis… If a patient needs a prescription, it is individually assessed by our doctor or the patient is referred to other specialized doctors where needed,” Marcus Klotz, co-founder of the Long Covid Center, told The BMJ in a media release.

Dr Beate Jaeger, an internal medicine doctor, started treating long COVID-19 patients with apheresis at her clinic in Germany in February 2021.

Jaeger says she started working with blood washing after reading reports that COVID can cause blood clotting.

The doctor admits that apheresis is only experimental, but says scientific trials take too long to complete. According to Jaeger, her clinic treats thousands of long COVID-19 patients, with success stories spreading on social media.

To date, there are no complaints about Jaeger filed with the North Rhine Medical Association, The BMJ reports. Chris Witham, a businessman and long COVID-19 patient from Great Britain spent over $8,300 on apheresis treatments and travel costs to Germany.

“I’d have sold my house and given it away to get better, without a second thought,” Witham says.

Study authors have also found that many people are setting up GoFundMe pages to raise the funds for their apheresis treatments and associated travel costs.

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The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between 10 and 20 percent of COVID-19 patients suffer from long COVID-19 for at least two months after their infection.

There’s still no official treatment for long COVID-19.

Read more:

Can losing weight treat ‘long COVID’? UAE experts say yes

Estimated two million have long COVID-19 in UK: Official data

COVID-19 pandemic no longer key priority for private healthcare companies

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