Analysis: Why We’re All Getting Ill More Often After COVID

According to an analysis from Bloomberg News and Airfinity Ltd., at least 13 diseases have been surging in the post-pandemic era. Although scientists do not yet have an explanation, they do believe that the way that COVID-19 has shifted baseline immunity plays a role. 

As Bloomberg reported, one popular theory that has emerged is immunity debt, this basically sets forth that people’s immune systems were insulated due to lockdowns, but once the world opened back up, people were more vulnerable to diseases, particularly young people who were not able to be exposed to illnesses in settings like public schools. As Cindy Yuan, a doctor of internal medicine at a clinic in Shanghai, told Bloomberg, “It’s like the walls of the immune system are broken, so all kinds of viruses can easily get in,” Dr. Yuan said. She told the outlet that in some months her patient load has doubled from pre-COVID levels. “It’s nonstop. From last autumn’s mycoplasma infections to flu and COVID during winter, and then whooping cough and various kinds of bacteria infections.”

Others, like Ben Cowling, the chair of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, are not convinced that the immunity debt theory tells the whole story. Cowling believes that more surveillance and more testing has also contributed to the increase in disease reporting, and told Bloomberg, “Immunity debt, it definitely happens, but I don’t think it results in enormous epidemics after COVID.” 

Like Cowling, Christopher Murray, the director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, believes there are more factors at play than just the immunity debt theory. “Why would it be worse in places that did a good job? That seems a bit strange. Some of this is the idea that those countries kept frail, elderly people alive,” Murray added that taken together with the immunity debt theory, “it’s a really quite complicated set of things going on.”

In addition to this, pandemic era misinformation about the way vaccines work contributed to a drop in childhood vaccinations, and poverty has played an as-yet-undetermined role in helping to spread diseases, say experts. Poverty, found Bloomberg’s report, has spiked across the globe in the wake of the pandemic, adding yet another layer to the increased rate of communicable diseases. According to Cowling, fewer vaccinations contributed to the rise of diseases like measles, polio, and pertussis. 

Measles, in particular, functions as a kind of litmus test for the spread of other diseases, as it requires a 95% vaccination rate in children to eliminate its spread. Measles, which was functionally eradicated in the United States in 2000, has staged a comeback after vaccinations for kindergarten children dipped. According to Katherine Wallace, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois, the measles resurgence is a sign that other diseases are going to be making a similar rebound.

Jeremy Farrar, World Health Organization’s chief scientist, pointed out that COVID-19 has created “a series of concentric circles,” evidenced in part by the drop in vaccinations.

“We’ve got to make the case for science and for vaccines and explain and explain and explain the importance. We can’t just say some people are anti-science or anti-vaccine and forget them,” Farrar said. “We need to listen, explain, and try to reach everybody.”

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