Swine Flu and Obesity

Recently scientists have pointed to some concerning data from the Center of Disease Control in Atlanta, indicating that after swine flu infection, more deaths have occurred in obese individuals than would be expected statistically.  This has led some scientists to opine that overweight or obese individuals may have grater risks when it comes to a serious flu infection.

Based upon the extensive volume of data from many other disease states, it is logical to expect swine flu to carry greater risks for a person who is overweight or obese than a person who has normal weight.  Any adverse health condition must be fought off by the human body with all of its organ systems functioning and coordination to sustain health and rid the body of the disease.

So, if health deterioration has occurred in many other aspects of the body when a new disease strikes, the body is less able to sustain itself and fight off the new problem.  Think of pneumonia (a new infection in the lungs) occurring in an old or disabled person.  This person lacks the strength and robustness of all the organ systems to adequately fight off this disease state that would have been a relatively easy battle in a health twenty-year-old.

This certainly is true for obese individuals facing all kinds of serious illnesses including: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, even an automobile accident or other trauma.  The individual in a car accident who is seriously overweight faces much higher risks because of deconditioning, poor lung function, impaired mechanics of breathing, strains on the heart to pump the blood through the body, liver congestion, kidney impairment and a host of other issues.  All of these other organ problems may have resided under the radar screen until the trauma occurred, but now they serve as an ominous background upon which the disease must play out.  Compared to a normal weight individual, the risks of the body failing to fight off the disease or trauma are significantly higher.

With H1N1 flu, there could also be an immunological affect based upon the increased adipose tissue or fat tissue carried by the individual.  The hormonal changes that we see in obesity (resistance to insulin and leptin along with increased levels of inflammatory cytokines and leptin) could potentially leave the body more vulnerable to attack from the virus.  It might be that these adverse states of relative immune susceptibility only incur a very slight, increased risk of say, one percent over an overweight individual.  If a flu virus like swine flu, afflicts millions of people that one percent increased risk among obese individuals translates to a significant number of victims suffering real and serious consequences from the flu.

Lastly, the findings have increased death rates after swine flu infection among obese individuals could also stem not from a specific cause that is related to the increased fat cells in the body, but rather due to the secondary diseases that we know stem from obesity.  For example: since so many more people with obesity have diabetes and high blood pressure, it is possible that these secondary conditions of obesity are what confers the added risk of swine flu death.  More sophisticated studies that control for these variables would help us understand if indeed that is an independent risk due to obesity and excess fat, above and beyond the associated adverse health conditions of obesity.

What ever the exact cause or mechanism it comes as no surprise that as we head into the swine flu season, overweight and obese individuals face greater risks.


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Dr. Kent Sasse, Medical Director | 75 Pringle Way Suite 804 Reno, NV 89502 | Phone: 775-829-7999

Dr. Kent Sasse serves the entire city of Reno and all the surrounding areas. Dr. Sasse is one of the nation's foremost medical weight loss and bariatric surgical experts.
Dr. Sasse has educated patients about food nutrition and weight loss for many years.

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