The novel coronavirus – COVID-19 – has prompted an uptick in fear for many, and even more so for those suffering from chronic illnesses. Are people with chronic illnesses (aka co-morbidities) at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus? Do they need to take special precautions?
We got the low-down from Dr David Eedes, a clinical oncologist and advisor to Icon Oncology, a network of oncology specialists committed to widening access to quality cancer care in South Africa.
Wait, back up… what exactly is a co-morbidity?
A co-morbidity is any chronic disease that could be a contributing risk to any new disease. Common chronic illnesses that could be considered a co-morbidity to the current coronavirus pandemic are heart or cardiovascular diseases, type-1 and type-2 diabetes, hypertension, underlying lung conditions, cancer and HIV/Aids.
Rheumatoid arthritis, chronic neurological conditions (such as strokes) and certain other disabilities may also add to the risk or severity of a new disease. Additional factors that contribute to a higher risk are age (the older you are, the higher the risk), gender (men being more at risk than women) and obesity.
Those living with or being treated for cancer do seem to be at a higher risk of more severe illness if they contract COVID-19. “Lung cancer patients, in particular, are at higher risk,” says Eedes. “Cancer patients are vulnerable because they are often older and their treatment for cancer may have included surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy. This, along with their cancer, will have weakened their immune system, making them more vulnerable to this viral infection.”
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So, what to do if “co-morbidity” is a concern for you?
Anyone with the diseases or risks mentioned above should ensure their chronic conditions are properly managed and controlled. Uncontrolled blood pressure or diabetes is not in your best interest, especially at this time. Physical distancing, regular hand-washing and taking precautions when you venture outside your home are critical to high-risk individuals.
“The measures we’ve put in place for all our cancer patients is to reduce their visits to hospitals or clinics as far as possible,” says Dr Eedes. “Telemedicine (telephonic consultations) is being used extensively now. For those patients who need to come to our clinics for treatment, we are vigilant in closely monitoring them for temperature or any concerning symptoms they may have. By staggering patients’ appointments and reducing accompanying family members, we keep our waiting areas empty and so reduce possible cross infections.”
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And if you’ve got cancer?
“If a cancer patient suspects they’ve come into contact with someone with coronavirus or they have concerning symptoms, it’s important that they inform their oncologist to get advice,” says Dr Eedes. “Any medication prescribed by their family practitioner or other healthcare workers must be checked with their oncologist or oncology nurse to avoid possible interactions with their cancer treatment.”
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In summary, COVID-19 is a serious threat to anyone with a chronic health condition, especially those with cancer. It’s in everyone’s best interests to stick to the lockdown/social distancing/hygiene rules put in place to allow our healthcare service to cope with the pandemic.
“Wear your mask, wash your hands regularly and follow the rules. As many people are feeling down, stressed and tired of the isolation and restrictions, we all need to try to remain as calm as possible, and be kind to one another,” says Dr Eedes.