Long COVID patients are going broke by traveling overseas for unproven ‘blood washing’ treatment. People that seek out these treatments, for which there is little to no proof of their efficacy, run the risk of going bankrupt.
From a budgetary standpoint, an experimental treatment for patients with lengthy COVID may be more detrimental than beneficial. According to researchers with the British Medical Journal, individuals are shelling out thousands of dollars and making international trips in the belief that “blood washing” could alleviate their COVID-19 symptoms.
Apheresis is the medical word for the procedure. Patients with lipid abnormalities who do not improve after receiving medicine or anti-clotting treatments typically receive this blood-filtering procedure.
Although there is little scientific proof that the intrusive technique actually relieves COVID-related symptoms, private clinics in Cyprus, Germany, and Switzerland have recently begun providing blood cleansing treatments to patients with long COVID.
How does apheresis work?
A needle is inserted into each of the patient’s arms during “blood washing.” The red blood cells and plasma are then separated from the blood when it exits one vein and goes through a filter. The plasma is filtered before being combined with the blood cells and delivered to the other vein.
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Why then do long-term COVID patients believe that this treatment will heal them? The authors of the study claim that some prior research has suggested that “microclots” in the blood plasma of COVID patients may be what is causing their symptoms to last for weeks or even months. Researchers from the BMJ note that it is far from clear if microclots are the underlying cause of prolonged COVID or are merely one of its many symptoms.
However, it is not deterring anyone from trying apheresis. Researchers from The BMJ and ITV News spoke with a number of people who had tried blood cleansing and learned that patients were experiencing a range of outcomes.
‘I’d have sold my house and given it away to get better, without a second thought’
In November 2021, Gitte Boumeester, a trainee psychiatrist in the Netherlands, was forced to leave her position because of the incapacitating symptoms of her coronavirus illness. Boumeester claims that a Facebook forum for long COVID patients is where she first learned about apheresis.
According to the report, she expended more than $50,000 on treatments at The Long Covid Center in Cyprus before going back home with no change in her symptoms. This involved nine sessions of hyperbaric oxygen therapy, six rounds of apheresis, and an intravenous vitamin infusion at a private facility next to The Long Covid Center.
The authors of the study add that Boumeester was required to sign a permission form that doctors and lawyers have called “inadequate” and that she was also requested to buy hydroxychloroquine before starting her therapy 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, tells The BMJ in a media release.
In contrast, internal medicine specialist Dr. Beate Jaeger began administering apheresis to long-term COVID patients at her German clinic in February 2021. After reading reports that COVID can lead to blood clotting, according to Jaeger, she began working with blood cleaning.
Apheresis is only an experimental procedure, the doctor acknowledges, but she claims that scientific trials take too long to conclude. Jaeger claims that her clinic provides care for thousands of COVID patients, with success stories becoming viral on social media.
The North Rhine Medical Association has not yet received any complaints regarding Jaeger, according to The BMJ.
Chris Witham, a businessman from Great Britain who has had COVID for a long time, spent more than $8,300 on his apheresis treatments and travel expenses to Germany.
“I’d have sold my house and given it away to get better, without a second thought,” Witham says.
The treatment could leave some bankrupt without a cure
Despite the fact that some people will pay everything to get rid of extended COVID, several specialists are concerned that apheresis will not live up to its promises and will actually make many patients’ conditions worse.
“It’s unsurprising that people who were previously highly functioning, who are now debilitated, can’t work, can’t financially support themselves, would seek treatments elsewhere,” says Shamil Haroon, a clinical lecturer in primary care at the University of Birmingham.
“It’s a completely rational response to a situation like this. But people could potentially go bankrupt accessing these treatments, for which there is limited to no evidence of effectiveness.”
The study’s authors also discovered that many patients are creating GoFundMe sites to gather funding for their apheresis procedures and associated travel expenses.
There’s still no official treatment for long COVID
The World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that 10 to 20% of COVID-19 patients have prolonged COVID for at least two months following infection.
Although over 200 symptoms have been linked to the illness, the most prevalent residual symptoms are exhaustion, muscle weakness, breathing and sleep issues, memory problems, anxiety or depression, chest pains, and loss of smell or taste.
There is currently no official treatment for long COVID. Experts advise against targeting microclots until scientists determine the actual source of the condition.
“They [microclots] may be a biomarker for disease, but how do we know they are causal?” says Robert Ariens, a vascular biology professor at the University of Leeds School of Medicine.
“If we don’t know the mechanisms by which the microclots form and whether or not they are causative of disease, it seems premature to design a treatment to take the microclots away, as both apheresis and triple anticoagulation are not without risks, the obvious one being bleeding.”