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Health Highlights: April 13, 2020

Last Updated: April 13, 2020.

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

Despite Rumors, Coronavirus Not Leading Cause of Death in U.S.

Despite all its devastating health and economic impacts, the coronavirus is not the leading cause of death in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

"There are no data to support that theory," Jeff Lancashire, a spokesperson for the National Center for Health Statistics, said in an email, CNN reported.

The U.S has the most coronavirus cases of any nation and some experts are making false claims that COVID-19 -- the disease caused by the coronavirus -- has become the leading cause of death in the U.S.

"We have limited data on 2020 deaths by cause, and no final official numbers yet for 2019, but we do know by looking at the final death totals in 2018 for the two leading causes of death in the U.S., Heart Disease and Cancer, there is no way that at this point COVID-19 comes anywhere close to those totals," Lancashire said in the email, CNN reported.

Between January and April in 2018, more than 234,000 people died of heart disease and nearly 199,000 died of cancer, according to Lancashire.

The COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. so far is about 16,700, according to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University, CNN reported.


Huge Increase in Demand at U.S. Food Banks

Food bank demand has spiked 98% in the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic, according to Feeding America, the nation's largest food bank network.

The increased demand may be greatest in rural areas where pantries are closing their doors due to a shortage of food and volunteers who staff them who are concerned about their health, CBS News reported.

For example, there were six food pantries a few weeks ago in Jasper County, Texas, but that's fallen to three -- to serve a county of about 35,000 people where nearly 20% live in poverty and many have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Some people are driving 40 miles to get to the food bank in Kirbyville, CBS News reported.

Donna Furlong and her husband, Leonard Droddy, live in east Texas and are so short of food that one eats one day and other the next day.

The couple, who receive disability payments and food stamps, relied on a pantry that closed in March because it could no longer get food, CBS News reported.


Chloroquine COVID-19 Trial Halted After Patient Deaths

A study of a medication closely related to the hydroxychloroquine drug that's been touted by U.S. President Donald Trump as a treatment for COVID-19 was halted due to potentially deadly side effects.

Researchers in Brazil were testing chloroquine in 81 hospitalized COVID-19 patients. About half were prescribed 450 milligrams twice daily for five days, and the others were prescribed 600 milligrams for 10 days, The New York Times reported.

But within three days, some patients taking the higher dose developed serious heart rhythm disorders, resulting in 11 deaths. The researchers immediately stopped the higher-dose part of the trial.

"To me, this study conveys one useful piece of information, which is that chloroquine causes a dose-dependent increase in an abnormality in the ECG that could predispose people to sudden cardiac death," Dr. David Juurlink, an internist and the head of the division of clinical pharmacology at the University of Toronto, Canada, told The Times.

An ECG (electrocardiogram) shows the heart's electrical activity.

The Brazilian trial didn't have enough patients in the lower-dose trial to conclude whether chloroquine was effective in patients with severe cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, The Times reported.

Patients in the trial also received the antibiotic azithromycin, which also has heart rhythm disorder risks. Hospitals in the United States are using azithromycin to treat COVID-19 patients, often in combination with hydroxychloroquine, according to The Times.


Coronavirus Antibody Tests Underway in California

Large-scale studies of tests to check for antibodies to the coronavirus are underway in California.

People may have antibodies if they've had COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, and the antibodies may give them immunity to the coronavirus. The findings from this research could help the United States develop strategies to get people back to work and restart the economy, experts say.

A study in Los Angeles County is being conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California's Price School of Public Policy and the Los Angeles County Public Health Department, NBC News reported.

The first set of tests in that study were conducted on 900 people Friday and Saturday at six drive-thru locations and will continue every two weeks for an undetermined length of time.

USC is also teaming with Stanford University and UCLA on a similar study in Santa Clara County, where 3,000 people were tested, and those findings should be published soon, Neeraj Sood, vice dean of research at the Price School, told NBC News.

Public health officials have been providing daily updates about numbers of cases, deaths, hospitalizations and tests, but those figures could be "the tip of the iceberg," according to Sood.

"We've just been testing the sick. So we truly don't know the true extent of the bulk of the population that might have covered," he told NBC News.

"There might be many people in the population that were asymptomatic and they survived it. So having those people in the calculation will help us truly figure out how deadly this epidemic is," Sood said.

Los Angles County has had more than 9,000 reported COVID-19 cases and nearly 300 deaths. It's population of 10 million is larger than those of more than 40 states, so the county could provide important answers about coronavirus antibodies, NBC News reported.


Many Questions Remain About COVID-19 Patients' Loss of Sense of Smell

It's unclear how long it will take COVID-19 patients who've lost their sense of smell to regain it, an expert says.

While there are anecdotal reports that losing the sense of smell may be among the symptoms of COVID-19 -- the illness caused by the new coronavirus -- there's little information on how common that symptom is or how long it could last, CNN reported.

Many people with COVID-19 who lost their sense of smell weeks ago are still waiting for it to return, but when that might happen is unknown, said Steven Munger, director of the University of Florida's Center for Smell and Taste.

"What we've known for a long time is one of the major causes of smell loss are upper respiratory tract infections due to viruses -- a common cold, influenza -- a subset of people lose their sense of smell, most of them temporarily, but a small subset lose that smell permanently," Munger told CNN.

The return of the sense of smell "might take days, it might take weeks, sometimes it even takes months to years on rare occasions. Sometimes it's gradual, sometimes it is all at once, and we don't really know why that is," he said.

Claire Hopkins, president of the British Rhinological Society, is trying to convince the World Health Organization to recognize loss of sense of smell as a COVID-19 symptom along with cough and fever.

Hopkins had King's College London include loss of sense of smell in a coronavirus symptom-tracking app. The school's findings were released April 1 and showed that loss of sense of smell or taste is a stronger predictor of coronavirus infection than fever, CNN reported.

The tracking app revealed that of about 400,000 people in the U.K. who reported one or more symptoms between March 24 and 29, 18% had lost their sense of smell or taste, while 10.5% had fever.

Previous: Boris Johnson Discharged From Hospital After Battling COVID-19 Next: As U.S. Leads World in COVID-19 Deaths, Trump Pushes to Re-Open Country in Early May

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