The hormone, or endocrine, system is the key regulator of body weight, energy expenditure and food intake. It’s critical to human wellbeing from foetal development to adolescence and old age. Imbalances in and misfunctioning of the system can lead to chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and endocrine cancers such as thyroid cancer.
These are precisely some of the comorbidities that have received intense media attention as populations at greater risk from the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the intersection between endocrine conditions and viruses such as COVID-19 is one that has not been widely addressed through policy and/or research across the world, including here in Europe. Patients suffering from endocrine-related conditions face additional challenges, as many are at an increased risk of COVID-19 infection.
Not only that – once infected, treating the virus is considerably more complicated for patients with diabetes, obesity, autoimmune thyroid disease, Cushing’s syndrome and other underlying endocrine-related diseases. These patients are more likely to suffer with severe symptoms and enter intensive care units and are at an increased risk of death from COVID-19.
A recent study in an Italian hospital showed that among COVID-19 patients suffering from obesity, with BMI greater than 35, are at a greater risk of suffering respiratory failure, admission to the ICU and death. For those who survive the viral infection, long-term quality of life can be significantly compromised.
The effect of harmful chemicals in the environment should also not be underestimated. Recent studies have shown that “certain underlying conditions associated with exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are exacerbating the effects of COVID-19 in vulnerable populations”.
Scientists have found statistically significant endocrine pathways that may be adversely affected by EDCs that are also linked to the severity of COVID-19. Action against EDCs is an absolute priority. Last year, a large majority of MEPs adopted a resolution calling for a comprehensive legislative framework on EDCs. This framework has still not materialised, and we eagerly await the next steps following a communication and several consultations on the topic.
While emerging research is helping to highlight and explain the interrelationship between COVID-19 and several endocrine and metabolic diseases, more needs to be done. We urgently need to dedicate effort and resources into better understanding the relationships between EDCs, endocrine diseases and the COVID-19 virus. We need a critical increase in research funding to understand the long-term health consequences of COVID-19 on endocrine and metabolic diseases.
This needs to be coupled with a coordinated effort for global surveillance of cases and outcomes monitoring as well as the development of new and effective models of patient management. The EU4Health programme is a promising umbrella strategy for the next years, yet it needs a strong endocrine element in order to achieve its objectives.
It is clear that a holistic EU4Health package will be difficult to achieve on a reduced budget. The European institutions, EU Member States and we as MEPs must rise to the challenge to ensure that this critical issue receives immediate attention as part of the EU’s comprehensive health strategy. We ignore it at our peril.