A World Obesity Federation report has found that 88 percent of deaths due to COVID-19 in the first year of the pandemic were in countries where more than half of the population is classified as overweight and highlights that the risk of death from coronavirus infection is about 10 times higher in these countries. The results prompted the London-based federation to urge governments to prioritise both coronavirus testing and vaccinations for people with overweight and obesity. Among the nations with overweight populations above the 50 percent threshold were also those with some of the largest proportions of coronavirus deaths including Britain, Italy and the US.
“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,” said the report’s primary author, Dr Tim Lobstein, senior policy adviser to the World Obesity Federation and visiting professor at the University of Sydney. “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.”
However, in countries where less than half of the adult population is classified as overweight, the risk of death from COVID-19 was about one-tenth of the levels in countries with higher shares of overweight adults. A higher BMI was also associated with increased risk of hospitalisation, admission to intensive or critical care and the need for mechanically assisted ventilation, researchers have reported. These findings were fairly uniform across the globe, with increased body weight the second greatest predictor - after age of hospitalization and higher risk of death of COVID-19.
“The failure to address the root causes of obesity over many decades is clearly responsible for hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths,” added Johanna Ralston, chief executive of the World Obesity Federation.
The researchers examined mortality data on 160 countries from Johns Hopkins University and the World Health Organization. Of the 2.5 million COVID-19 deaths reported by the end of February, 2.2 million were in countries where more than half the population is overweight. In countries where less than 40% of the population was overweight, the COVID-19 death rate was no more than 10 people per 100,000, compared with more than 100 per 100,000 in countries where more than 50% of the population was overweight.
“This report must act as a wake-up call to governments globally,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization. “The correlation between obesity and mortality rates from Covid-19 is clear and compelling. Investment in public health and coordinated, international action to tackle the root causes of obesity is one of the best ways for countries to build resilience in health systems post-pandemic. We urge all countries to seize this moment.”