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©BNITM | Dino Schachten

At the beginning of February, the symposium "Long-term Consequences of Infections" of the Leibniz Center Infection (LCI) research network in northern Germany took place in Hamburg with over 120 participants. The Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine, the Borstel Research Center, the Leibniz Lung Center and the Leibniz Institute of Virology - all partner institutes of LFV INFECTIONS - founded this alliance in 2005 in order to strengthen infection research in the Hamburg metropolitan region in the long term.

Press Release Leibniz Center Infection

The long-term consequences of an infection can have significant consequences for the health and quality of life of those affected. Medical research is increasingly focussing not only on the acute stage of infection, but also on the post-infection phase. Long-term consequences can be diverse and range from persistent symptoms to health complications, as well as social and economic problems.

In post-COVID, fatigue (pathological exhaustion) and exercise intolerance are the most common symptoms. "We have also discovered that some of those affected by SARS-CoV-2 infection develop myalgic encephalomyelitis / chronic fatigue syndrome, or ME/CFS for short - a severe, complex and usually chronic disease due to dysregulation of the central and autonomic nervous system, the immune system and the metabolism," explains Prof Carmen Scheibenbogen, Head of the Immunodeficiency Outpatient Clinic at Charité Berlin and invited speaker. ME/CFS is not only triggered by coronaviruses, but also other viruses. According to cross-sectional data from various studies from 2011 to 2020, 150,000 to 300,000 people in Germany already had the disease before the pandemic, writes the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Healthcare in its final report 2023. "But the disease was hardly recognised and therefore there was hardly any research funding," says Scheibenbogen.

Prof Gülşah Gabriel, head of the Viral Zoonoses - One Health department at the Leibniz Institute of Virology (LIV), is also investigating the possible long-term consequences of COVID-19 disease. In particular, current research is focussing on sex hormones, which can influence the gender-dependent severity of the disease. She emphasises: "The influence of respiratory viral infections on the endocrine system with possible long-term consequences is a new field of research that requires special attention."

Bacterial infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, can also have long-term consequences. Researchers at the Research Centre Borstel (FZB) are investigating the long-term consequences of tuberculosis in the BMBF-Africa-funded TB-Sequel II network under the leadership of LMU Munich together with partners in four African countries. Prof Andrea Rachow from the LMU Munich and spokesperson of the TB-Sequel II network will give a lecture on this topic.

Research in a holistic context

The diverse programme of the event will highlight the long-term consequences of infections on the immune system, on the affected organs and on the socio-economic situation of those affected in three thematic blocks.

In the session on the socio-economic consequences of an infection, scientists such as Prof César Muñoz-Fontela, Head of the Virus Immunology Working Group at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine (BNITM), will discuss how misguided communication or disinformation campaigns have exacerbated epidemics in the past. "Global warming, the need to feed the world and political messages are factors that have a major impact on the occurrence of zoonotic viral infections," emphasises Muñoz-Fontela.

"It is our goal as LCI to investigate the dynamics of infections and to find out why long-term consequences arise in some patients in order to develop innovative strategies to deal with the long-term consequences," says LCI spokesperson and Director at the FZB, Prof Ulrich Schaible. This symposium marks a further step towards a comprehensive understanding and more effective measures in dealing with infectious diseases worldwide.

Highlights of the symposium include presentations by renowned scientists:

Prof. Dr. Tobias Welte from the Hannover Medical School will discuss how viral infections can worsen the course and symptoms of chronic cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and the role of vaccinations as the most important preventive measure.

Dr. Tom Wingfield from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine discusses the social dimensions of tuberculosis and shows how preventive measures and care strategies can be organised more effectively.

Prof Dr. Cecilie Svanes from the University of Bergen will speak about the prenatal origins of respiratory diseases and the role infections play in this.

Prof. Dr. Susanne Nylén from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm presents her research on the interaction of parasites with the host. Her focus is on how intestinal nematodes shape the immune landscape in the long term and what impact this has on infections and vaccinations.

The FZB has also invited a special guest from Cape Town - Dr Zolelwa Sifumba, a doctor and former tuberculosis patient, who is an activist with the NGO TB Proof and will talk about her experiences with the disease and its long-term effects in her contribution "Tuberculosis and me".