United Kingdom

'Wake-up call' for the West: Top experts call for obesity clamp down after Covid report

A report showing that Covid deaths have been 10 times higher in countries with high levels of obesity should serve as a 'wake up call' to the West, experts said today.

World Obesity Federation research today found nations where at least half of adults are overweight have accounted for a staggering 90 per cent of global Covid fatalities.

The report suggested thousands of lives may have been saved in the UK if the population was slimmer and lockdown measures may not have needed to be as drastic because there would have been fewer hospital admissions. 

Dr Raghib Ali, an epidemiologist at Cambridge University, described the research as a 'wake-up' call and said he hopes it will serve as an incentive for Brits to slim down. 

He told Talk Radio today: 'I think there has been a wake up call, even in my own experience working on the frontlines with Covid patients.

'It was particularly noticeable that in younger patients the majority were overweight or obese. It reminded of 20 years ago when I first started practicing medicine, patient used to come in with heart disease or lung problems who were smokers. 

'It really did give them an incentive and made them realise they needed to give up smoking - it may have the same impact now, that people realise just how unhealthy being overweight and particularly being obese can be.' 

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) tweeted earlier in the day: 'This report must act as a wake-up call to governments globally. 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.'

On the back of the news, GPs in Britain will prescribe more than 700,000 people diet plans, apps and wearable activity trackers as part a Government anti-obesity drive.  

A study by the World Obesity Federation found that the vast majority of Covid-19 deaths have happened in countries where more than half the population is overweight. Fat countries in the West, including the UK, US and Italy, all saw devastatingly high death tolls, while nations with lower obesity rates – on the whole – had much fewer fatalities

Dr Raghib Ali (left), an epidemiologist at Cambridge University, described the research as a 'wake-up' call and said he hopes it will serve as an incentive for Brits to slim down. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) tweeted earlier in the day: 'This report must act as a wake-up call to governments globally

Ministers said they are committed to slimming the country's waistlines, after the alarming study.   

Downing Street said it would pump money into NHS-led schemes to help people of all ages lose weight, with the drive particularly targeting children and people living in poorer areas.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who previously admitted he was 'too fat' when he was hospitalised with Covid last spring — said: 'Losing weight is hard, but making small changes can make a big difference.

WHY DOES BEING OVERWEIGHT MAKE COVID WORSE? 

People who are overweight or obese are more likely to develop severe Covid-19 and die from it because they are generally less healthy and have worse immune systems.

The coronavirus has been found to prey on people who don't have good health – it causes fluid build-up in the lungs, blood clotting, swelling in the airways and blood vessels, intense fever and can trigger immune over-reaction. All of these can seriously damage vital organs.

Overweight people are more likely to suffer severe versions of these effects because their bodies are already struggling to cope as a result of the strain of carrying excess fat, hormonal and chemical changes trigged by obesity, and higher rates of long-term illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure. 

Fat in the belly pushes up on the diaphragm – the breathing muscle – and compresses the lungs, making them weaker and less able to chuck out the viruses when they get in, Science magazine explains. 

Blood is also more likely to clot because vessels are damaged and don't work properly, partly because of constant swelling and irritation caused by chemicals released by fat. One researcher told Science obese people with Covid had 'the stickiest blood I have ever seen'. These clots then travel to the lungs and other organs and can be deadly.

The immune system is also weaker in overweight people because fat cells intrude on organs that would normally make white blood cells, such as the bone marrow, meaning their capacity to work as normal is reduced. This means it takes longer to fight off the virus, if the body is able to do it at all.

And any organ dysfunction, such as that caused by heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, high blood pressure or dementia, has been found to make Covid-19 worse as it preys on damaged parts of the body and worsens existing problems. All of these are reported to be more common in obese people. 

'Being overweight increases the risk of becoming ill with Covid. If we all do our bit, we can reduce our own health risks – but also help take pressure off the NHS.'

The WOF report found that significant proportions of Covid deaths happened in fatter countries like the UK and US which, combined, have suffered around 643,000 deaths from the virus – a quarter of the world's total.

The report, which compared countries' obesity rates and Covid death tolls, found that the coronavirus death rate was 10 times higher in countries where 50 per cent or more of the population is overweight. 

It saw that 2.2million of the world's 2.5million deaths so far had happened in countries with these high obesity rates.

'Increased bodyweight is the second greatest predictor of hospitalisation and a high risk of death for people suffering from Covid-19,' the report said.

'Only old age rates as a higher risk factor. The unprecedented economic costs of Covid-19 are largely due to the measures taken to avoid the excess hospitalisation and need for treatment of the disease. 

'Reducing one major risk factor, overweight, would have resulted in far less stress on health services and reduced the need to protect those services from being overwhelmed.'

The UK has had the third highest coronavirus death rate per person – at 182 per 100,000 people, lower only than Slovenia (183) and Belgium (192) – and the fourth highest overweight rate, at 64 per cent.

A total of 123,783 people have died of Covid-19 in the UK, according to the Department of Health.

In the US, at least 518,453 people have been killed by the disease. It had a rate per 100,000 people of 152, the report found, meaning it ranked eighth in the world. 

More than two thirds of Americans – 68 per cent – are classified as overweight or obese.

In countries where less than half the population is overweight, the risk of death from Covid is just a tenth of that in countries above this level.

No country where less than 40 per cent of the population is overweight has Covid-19 death rates above 10 per 100,000, the report shows.

The country with the lowest Covid death rate was Vietnam, which has one of the lowest levels of excess weight in its population – while Japan and Singapore were also singled out for their low levels of obesity and deaths from Covid-19. 

These countries managed to avoid disaster during the pandemic despite being close to China and having some of the first international coronavirus cases in early 2020. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) said the report should act as a 'wake-up call' for governments, particularly in wealthier countries, to tackle their obesity problems. 

Director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: 'This report must act as a wake-up call to governments globally. 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.'

UK PM Boris Johnson performed an about-turn on his obesity policies after a near-fatal brush with Covid-19 early in 2020, and has now lost weight himself and says he is committed to helping the public do the same.   

His new review will look overseas for inspiration, such as at the national step challenge in Singapore, to which almost a quarter of the public signed up.

The PM said: 'This funding will give extra support to people across the country who want to lose weight, too.' 

But officials said it was too early to say whether the schemes, part of a £100million Government investment, could allow shoppers discounts on healthy foods.     

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: 'We want to make it easier for people to lose weight, which is why our funding set out today ensures those across all ages have the right level of support and tools they need to make healthier lifestyle choices.' 

Author of the WOF 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.  

A prediction made by SAGE sub-group SPI-M at the start of February suggested daily Covid deaths in England would stay above 200 until the end of March but they are already lower. The yellow line shows SPI-M's prediction, while the red line represents the actual daily death count, calculated as a seven-day average

'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.' 

Johanna Ralston, chief executive of the World Obesity Federation, said: 'The failure to address the root causes of obesity over many decades is clearly responsible for hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths.'

Professor Rachel Batterham, the Royal College of Physicians' lead adviser on obesity, told the Times: 'The link between high levels of obesity and deaths from Covid-19 in the UK is indisputable, as is the urgent need to address the factors that lead so many to be living with obesity.'

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