The COVID-19 pandemic has upended lives around the world, but there is a community of patients – those with compromised immune systems – who are at increased risk of COVID-19 compared to the rest of the population and whose needs remain unmet.
Global patient groups called on governments and health system leaders in a joint statement to address the unmet need of people who are immunocompromised, for whom the COVID-19 pandemic presents a continued health risk. The initiative involved AstraZeneca, alongside the Association of Patients with Autoimmune Diseases (APAA), Blood Cancer UK, Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia Advocates Network (CLLAN), European Liver Patients’ Association (ELPA), Friends of Cancer Patients, Immuno Deficiency UK, Kidney Care UK, NEF, and Renaloo.
Approximately two per cent of the global population is considered to be immunocompromised and at an increased risk of an inadequate response to a COVID-19 vaccine. More than 40 per cent of those hospitalised with breakthrough infections after vaccination is in people who are immunocompromised, along with a increased risk of inpatient mortality compared to the general population.
The pandemic has not ended for immunocompromised patients
The current strategies adopted to support people from COVID-19 are broad but tend to focus on the average, healthy citizen. Whilst this approach benefits most and is enabling countries to start to return to normal ways of working and living, learning to live with COVID-19; immunocompromised patients are being left behind.
As these patients do not mount an optimal immune response, they are more likely to develop severe life-threatening diseases and may suffer prolonged infection, which might lead to new emerging variants. For them, there is no end to the pandemic in sight.
Continued impact on quality of life
Immunocompromised patients are enduring prolonged suffering and are anxious about the continued risk posed by possible exposure to COVID-19.
For over two years, this patient community has been isolated from friends, family and society with detrimental impacts. This has included children being unable to attend school or socialise, with impacts on their emotional development. A survey of blood cancer patients found almost 90 per cent of respondents said their mental health had been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those immunocompromised people who are unable to work from home, such as delivery drivers or those working in hospitality, are now facing increased anxiety in the workplace, due to many COVID-19 regulations and restrictions being removed. A survey of kidney patients highlighted that 54 per cent of respondents felt concerned about returning to their workplace, but felt they have no other choice.5 Following the withdrawal of financial support for shielding in most countries, many immunocompromised people feel they have no choice but to return to work. This lack of prioritisation is further exacerbating existing health inequalities.
Specific measures to support the community
The COVID-19 pandemic has added considerable pressure to healthcare systems worldwide. But it is critical additional measures to support immunocompromised patients which should be prioritised. This is because of the higher risk of both hospitalization and severe, life-threatening disease from COVID-19 among the immunocompromised patient community. This is particularly important now as the rest of the population are returning to normal ways of working and living.
Greater visibility of immunocompromised patients and the health inequalities faced by this community is needed in health policy and messaging to raise public awareness of the support still required by this group of people.
This includes communicating specific information around the safety measures that should be maintained by this community, including continued mask wearing, access to free COVID-19 testing, access to additional therapeutic options and providing advice and support for continued self-isolation.
Employers need to continue to also take responsibility for the health and safety of their immunocompromised employees, including appropriate safety measures to help reduce risk of exposure to the virus. These measures are vital to enable people who are immunocompromised to return to, and continue fully working in, the workplace.
Now is the time to act, to address the unmet needs of the immunocompromised community. We are calling on governments to take urgent action to support this vulnerable community and ensure that their needs are prioritised, the statement concluded.