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Heart damage and COVID-19

heart donors concept. abstract organ transplantation. A human heart in woman's hand. Saving lives hopelessly sick. Complex surgical operations. International crime. Assassins in white coats. isolated on black background. Image credit: Aleksandra Kuznecova / 123rf. heart damage concept.
Image credit: Aleksandra Kuznecova / 123rf

The potential link between COVID-19 and heart damage has been underscored by new research, which indicates that even months later those affected display indicators.

Researchers in the United States have found that those infected with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) or simply coronavirus – which causes COVID-19 – may display symptoms of heart damage such as inflammation and injury. This worrying trend sometimes applies even to those whose infection with SARS-CoV-2 was not severe. 

“We basically die with the heart-muscle cells we’re born with, so anything that results in the death of heart muscle has the potential to irreversibly damage the heart’s mechanical ability and the heart’s electrical function,” Charles Murry, director of the University of Washington’s Center for Cardiovascular Biology, told The Wall Street Journal. However, researchers emphasised the preliminary nature of the findings. “More research, including studies in patients, needs to be done before scientists can reach any conclusions,” they said. 

Lasting damage as a result of COVID-19 has been suggested in research published in recent months. As my colleague Nicholas Parry wrote for Health Issues India in May, citing a commentary published in The Lancet, there is the potential for “permanent health issues developing in those who recover from the condition…the commentary notes that in patients from the Chinese city of Wuhan — the pandemic’s epicentre — chest CT scans showed bilateral ground glass opacities following recovery from the virus. 

“Ground glass opacities refers to unspecified murky areas within CT scans of the lungs, often corresponding to fluid secretion or damaged tissue. While this is not unexpected, a concerning prospect is that these issues are persistent even after viral remission.” Parry quoted the commentary, which outlined “plausible contributors include a cytokine release syndrome triggered by the viral antigen, drug-induced pulmonary toxicity, and high airway pressure and hyperoxia-induced acute lung injury secondary to mechanical ventilation.”

Similarly, researchers have warned of the broader effects of COVID-19 as it pertains to heart health. Researchers in June cautioned that those whose SARS-CoV-2 infection is serious or critical enough to warrant admission to the ICU, “are ten times more likely to develop heart health complications such as cardiac arrest and arrhythmias compared to other patients hospitalised due to COVID-19,” as Health Issues India reported at the time. “This is according to a study conducted by researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, which was published in the Heart Rhythm Journal.” 

The news that even those whose infection was mild may sustain lasting damage to the heart is a worrying development. For India – a country whose incidence of heart disease has been rising on a sustained basis in recent decades – the preliminary findings are far from comforting. 

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