As we all know, a high temperature is one of the most important indicators that someone is infected with Coronavirus. Except that it isn’t.
We all think it is, because it’s been widely publicised through government press conferences, ministerial interviews and advertising. It’s also the first symptom mentioned on the page of symptoms listed on the NHS website about Covid-19 symptoms.
We often see news reports featuring temperature measuring devices being used at work places, public events, educational establishments and airports. So it’s hardly surprising that many people who develop a high temperature will immediately think “Must get tested”. But, as the NHS also points out on its website, “A fever is your body’s natural response to many common illnesses”. The corollary to this is that it’s unsurprising that the test analysis system has been overwhelmed recently. I suggest that this is caused not by inconsiderate people in a panic but by over-simplistic, ill-targeted messaging …
A massive piece of ongoing research by health science company ZOE, endorsed by the Welsh Government, NHS Wales, the Scottish Government and NHS Scotland, suggests that fever or high temperature – on its own – is actually a quite unreliable early indicator that someone has the virus. Fever is a symptom that can be an important indicator in combination with others; but even then there are other symptom combinations which are much more reliable.
The COVID-19 Symptom Study is an app-based survey which, according to the company, is “the largest public science project of its kind anywhere in the world”. The app has been downloaded by over 4.2 million participants, who use it to report regularly on their health, with data being analysed in collaboration with researchers from King’s College London. The app is available from the App Store and Google Play.
Fever, when it occurs, is certainly one of the more important factors to look out for amongst under 18s and over 65s. But for the huge 18 to 65 year old demographic, representing about 40% of the population, it’s quite a long way down the list of priorities.
As we know, this disease is complex and its victims experience a wide range of effects, from no symptoms at all to death; it can clear up after ten days or leave people with a varied list of long-term after-effects (‘Long Covid’); and now it’s clear that it affects different age groups in different ways. Even then, it’s inconsistent: its effects on individuals may not be typical for their age group.
The simple messages being issued by the government are well-meaning. As someone who planned major advertising campaigns for over forty years until I retired recently, I’m only too aware of the importance of that well-used marketing mnemonic K.I.S.S. – “Keep It Simple, Stupid”. (I worked on a number of sometimes complex and multi-targeted international ad. campaigns aimed at recruiting volunteers for clinical trials – see this article I wrote on LinkedIn about this).
But I do believe that more people should be told about this kind of research. There are many who don’t have the inclination to dig deeper into what we do know about the virus. For them, the simplistic mottoes put out by the government have worked. But it’s essential that these messages are expanded to build more knowledge about the latest findings. It’s true that hospitals have not been overwhelmed – good communications achieved that objective. It’s now time to come to the aid of the testing labs.
People understand the rules of football; they can navigate the web and make online purchases; they can plan holidays abroad. It’s now time for them to learn more about the finer points of Covid-19. A more detailed and carefully thought-through communication programme is urgently required, targeted at the different demographics. Greater awareness and understanding is key to changing attitudes and actions. Generalising and over-simplification can be counter-productive.
So in my view, we should be moving swiftly into a much more targeted Phase II of messaging, in the same way that we are refining our targeting of restrictions in terms of movement, household meetings and lockdown.
I have cut and pasted unaltered extracts from the COVID-19 Symptom Study to fit into my blog format. The website for the report can be found here, and as mentioned the app can be downloaded from the App Store and Google Play.
Picture credit: BodyPlus Infrarot-Thermometer – TrotecHealthCare / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)