Loss of taste and smell key COVID-19 symptoms, app study finds

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – Losing your sense of smell and taste may be the best way to tell if you have COVID-19, according to a study of data collected via a symptom tracker app developed by scientists in Britain and the United States to help monitor the coronavirus pandemic.

Almost 60% of patients who were subsequently confirmed as positive for COVID-19 had reported losing their sense of smell and taste, data analysed by the researchers showed.

That compared with 18% of those who tested negative.

These results, which were posted online but not peer-reviewed, were much stronger in predicting a positive COVID-19 diagnosis than self-reported fever, researchers at King’s College London said.

The app, which the researchers say could help slow the outbreak and identify more swiftly those at risk of contracting COVID-19, can be downloaded via the URL covid.joinzoe.com.

If enough people participate in sharing their symptoms, the scientists said, the app could also provide healthcare systems with critically valuable information.

“This app-based study is a way to find out where the COVID-19 hot spots are, new symptoms to look out for, and might be used as a planning tool to target quarantines, send ventilators and provide real-time data to plan for future outbreaks,” said Andrew Chan, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in the United States who is co-leading the study.

Of 1.5 million app users between March 24 and March 29, 26% reported one or more symptoms through the app. Of these, 1,702 also reported having been tested for COVID-19, with 579 positive results and 1,123 negative results.

MATHEMATICAL MODEL

Using all the data collected, the research team developed a mathematical model to identify which combination of symptoms – ranging from loss of smell and taste, to fever, persistent cough, fatigue, diarrhoea, abdominal pain and loss of appetite -was most accurate in predicting COVID-19 infection.

“When combined with other symptoms, people with loss of smell and taste appear to be three times more likely to have contracted COVID-19 according to our data, and should therefore self-isolate for seven days to reduce the spread of the disease,” said Tim Spector, a King’s professor who led the study.

Trish Greenhalgh, a professor of primary care health sciences at Britain’s Oxford University and who is not involved in the study, said it was the first to demonstrate scientifically and in a large population sample that loss of smell is a characteristic feature of COVID-19.

Spector’s team applied their findings to the more than 400,000 people reporting symptoms via the app who had not yet had a COVID-19 test, and found that almost 13% of them are likely to be infected.

This would suggest that some 50,000 people in Britain may have as yet unconfirmed COVID-19 infections, Spector said.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Grant McCool and Gareth Jones)

Cholera surge stalks Yemen’s hungry and displaced

A girl, cholera patient, lies on a bed as she receives medical care at a health center in the village of Islim, in the northwestern province of Hajjah, Yemen June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alrage

By Eissa al-Rajehy

HAJJAH, Yemen (Reuters) – In the last two weeks Dr Asmahan Ahmed has seen a surge in suspected cholera cases arriving at her health center in Abs, a small, Houthi-held town in northwest Yemen.

“Every day there are 30-50 cases, no fewer. Suddenly it became like this,” she said in the 15-bed diarrhea treatment center.

Yemen is suffering its third major cholera outbreak since 2015 when a Saudi-led military coalition intervened to try to restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government after it was ousted from power in the capital Sanaa by the Iran-aligned Houthi movement.

The conflict has put 10 million people at risk of famine in the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis.

Cholera causes profuse diarrhea and fluid loss which can kill within hours. Children, the elderly and those weakened by years of poor nutrition are most at risk.

The World Health Organization said last week that Yemen had seen more than 724,000 suspected cholera cases and 1,135 deaths this year, but that case numbers had stabilized in recent weeks.

In the clinic, limp children’s faces are covered with flies and their chests heave as they breathe while receiving intravenous fluid tubes in their feet and wrists.

Children pull water from a water well in the village of Islim in the northern province of Hajjah, Yemen, June 9, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

Children pull water from a water well in the village of Islim in the northern province of Hajjah, Yemen, June 9, 2019. REUTERS/Eissa Alragehi

The recent influx means some patients are forced to lie on the floor and the center has run out of some medicines.

Cholera is spread through dirty water, which more and more Yemenis are forced to drink as water resources are scarce in the poorest Arabian Peninsula nation.

Pumps are needed in many parts of the country of 30 million people to bring water to the surface. Fuel shortages have dramatically increased clean water prices.

“We rely on wells which are uncovered and very dirty … We and livestock drink from these wells, as do children,” said Qassem Massoud, a young man standing at a rural well where people haul water up using plastic containers on string.

Others fill containers from a muddy pool as donkeys drink alongside.

Dr Abdelwahab al-Moayad said Yemen’s internally displaced were particularly at risk.

“The number of cases are increasing by the day and if it continues we would consider it a humanitarian disaster,” he said.

A breakthrough in U.N.-led peace efforts last December, the first in more than two years, had sparked hope for improved humanitarian and aid access.

But implementation of a ceasefire and a troop withdrawal initiative in the main port of Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions, has dragged on for six months. Violence has continued in other parts of Yemen.

Since the deal, more than 255,000 people have been displaced, U.N. migration agency figures show.

The Houthis, who say their revolution is against corruption, control the biggest population centers. The Saudi-backed government is based in the southern port of Aden.

(Reporting by Reuters TV in Yemen; writing by Lisa Barrington; editing by Jason Neely)