Noticing nerve damage and COVID-19 nightmares during a 'challenging' 2020
James Hetherington


The surgeon who helped to identify loss of smell as a COVID-19 symptom has looked back on 2020 as "a challenging one, to say the least." 

It's a relatively restrained description from Nirmal Kumar, consultant ENT surgeon at Wrightington Wigan & Leigh NHS Foundation Trust in the UK, for a year full of nightmares – literally as well as figuratively. 

ENT stands for ear, nose and throat – the core of almost all COVID-19 infections – and specialists in this field have been at the front line of the front line – or as he puts it, "the danger zone." 

Even in the heroic context of health workers, their contribution has been no insignificant one. In March, Kumar and fellow specialists in the UK were among the first to identify anosmia – the loss of smell – as a symptom of the coronavirus. By mid-April the World Health Organization had officially included this as a warning sign. 




Since then, Kumar and his colleagues have become even more familiar with the virus. It is neurotropic, meaning it affects the nervous system. It attacks several nerves, including those in the nose that dictate the sense of smell. This can disrupt the transmission of messages to the brain, opening a Pandora's Box of psychiatric problems – trouble sleeping and nightmares to name a few. 

As 2020 comes to an end, the announcements of various vaccines have heralded a great deal of hope for 2021.

Among them is the UK's recently approved Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine, which Kumar sees as a "game-changer." Not only does it not require the costly storage facilities of other vaccines, but it is also to be sold at a non-profit price to less affluent nations. The mounting fear over vaccine inequality may have ended before it ever really started. 

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