Obesity – the pandemic waiting to happen

In the week saw that saw the staging of World Obesity Day, there is a new warning that obesity is now a global pandemic in waiting unless urgent steps are taken to tackle the threat.

The World Obesity Federation has issued a new report which links obesity to the number of deaths and in severe COVID-19 infections it found the death rate was 10 times higher in countries where 50% or more of the population is overweight.

The study warns urgent action needs to be taken if the world is not to face an obesity-driven health crisis which could be likened to a pandemic.

“Obesity is recognised as both a disease in its own right and a condition that increases the likelihood of developing a wide range of non-communicable diseases,” the report stated. “Less well-known is the fact that obesity also increases the likelihood that infectious diseases will lead to serious consequences. This is most clearly apparent in the global spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the resulting pandemic of COVID-19.

“Through detailed analyses of the latest peer reviewed data, we demonstrate how overweight is a highly significant predictor of developing complications from COVID-19, including the need for hospitalisation, for intensive care and for mechanical ventilation. Overweight is also a predictor of death from COVID-19.”

It added: “This report shows that in countries where less than half the adult population is classified as overweight, the likelihood of death from COVID-19 is a small fraction – around one tenth – of the level seen in countries where more than half the population is classified as overweight. Of the 2.5 million COVID-19 deaths reported by the end of February 2021, 2.2 million were in countries where more than half the population is classified as overweight.

“We recognise that these figures are by necessity incomplete, and that a clearer picture may emerge as the pandemic develops further. The figures are affected by the ability of a country to control its borders and by the speed with which the virus and its variants spread through populations and into more remote areas.”

It added that the federation’s findings have serious public health implications. “The figures are affected by the age structure of national populations and a country’s relative wealth and reporting capacity, but our findings appear to be independent of these contributory factors,” it explained. “Furthermore, other studies have found that overweight remains a highly significant predictor of the need for COVID-19 health care after accounting for these other influences.

“The International Monetary Fund has calculated that COVID-19 will cause a total of at least $10 trillion losses in global output over the period 2020-2021 and accumulating to $22 trillion over the period 2020-2025. Based on the UK experience, where an estimated 36% of COVID-19 hospitalisations have been attributed to lack of physical activity and excess body weight, it can be suggested that up to a third of the costs – between $6 trillion and $7 trillion over the longer period – might be attributable to these predisposing risks.”

The report warned COVID-19 is not the first respiratory viral infection exacerbated by overweight. Data from the last two decades on the impact of MERS, H1N1 influenza and other influenza-related infections show worse outcomes linked to excess bodyweight.

Author of the report Dr Tim Lobstein, senior policy adviser to the World Obesity Federation and visiting professor at the University of Sydney, said: “We now know that an overweight population is the next pandemic waiting to happen.

“Look at countries like Japan and South Korea where they have very low levels of Covid-19 deaths as well as very low levels of adult obesity. They have prioritised public health across a range of measures, including population weight, and it has paid off in the pandemic.

“Governments have been negligent and ignored the economic value of a healthy population at their peril.

“For the last decade they have failed to tackle obesity, despite setting themselves targets at United Nations meetings.

“Covid-19 is only the latest infection exacerbated by weight issues, but the warning signs were there. We have seen it in the past with Mers, H1N1 and other respiratory diseases.”

The study warns urgent action needs to be taken if the world is not to face an obesity-driven health crisis which could be likened to a pandemic.

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