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Counting long-COVID: an interview with Dr Nisreen Alwan

Having contracted COVID-19 is early 2020, and unable to shake off symptoms,

Dr Nisreen Alwan found her interest in long-COVID becoming both personal and professional.

“People were posting on social media that they were having similar experiences but it wasn’t being talked about by policy makers. No-one was defining it or counting it,” she says.

It prompted Nisreen to write an article on the topic in the British Medical Journal, followed by articles for science and medical journals such as Nature and The Lancet. She started a social media campaign #countinglongcovid to continue to raise awareness of the need for countries to measure and address not only mortality, but long-term ill health from the virus.

“Policy decisions were being made without taking account of morbidity. The focus was on overloading the NHS, hospitalisations and death, so people who were not classed as high risk, but who were not recovering, were not counted anywhere. We needed to know the size of the problem in terms of productivity, long-term recovery and impact on health care use so that we could make appropriate public health and policy decisions,” says Nisreen.

National recognition for pandemic response

Her efforts have paid off. In addition to raising global awareness of the problem, as part of a group of experts, she persuaded the All Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus to include the need to count long-COVID as one of its demands to government. The Office for National Statistics has similarly taken the issue onboard, providing monthly updates on counting long-COVID, and the UK is now leading on trying to estimate the ongoing burden caused by the virus.

In recognition of her campaigning and her work on the Southampton Saliva Testing Programme, Nisreen received an MBE and was heralded as one of BBC’s 100 Women of 2020, alongside the likes of Sanna Marin, the Prime Minister of Finland, NASA astronaut Kathy Sullivan, and British vaccinologist Professor Sarah Gilbert.

“The massive achievements of those women is really inspirational and to be counted among them was amazing. Both awards felt like a very big honour,” Nisreen says.

A passion for women and ethnic minorities

Nisreen is an Associate Professor in Public Health at the University of Southampton and an Honorary Consultant in Public Health at University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust. She is a key researcher in the Nutrition, Lifestyle and Metabolism theme for the NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre.

Part of her current research focuses on the link between long-COVID and social and demographic inequalities. This feeds into her passion for supporting women and ethnic minorities.

“I saw common themes in terms of recognition of less well-known conditions like long-COVID and around inequalities for women and ethnic minorities. If people’s experiences are not understood, the tendency is to ignore them,” she says.

Nisreen also leads an intersectionality mentoring scheme, focused on supporting women from ethnic minorities in their career in medicine. Under the scheme, Southampton will work with other medical schools to provide mentoring scheme for this cohort across the UK.

Meanwhile, Nisreen’s other research interests continue. She is conducting work around the prevention of childhood obesity, and undertaking a project looking at the indirect effect of the pandemic on the food security of families with young children. Far from easing up post-COVID, there’s little space to be found on the desk of this award-winning scientist.

Nisreen was speaking to Hartley News, the University of Southampton Alumni and Supporter Magazine.

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