Obesity is not a risk factor for pandemic flu

One of the common refrains we see after someone has died of the new H1N1 virus is that they had an underlying condition. Obesity has been listed as one of these risk factors for death from pandemic flu. Turns out, this claim was incorrect.

From a story by Tom Randall on Bloomberg, July 29, 2009.

Being fat doesn’t increase the risk of death from swine flu, according to a U.S. analysis that contradicts initial reports.

About 34 percent of the U.S. population is obese, while 38 percent of patients who died with swine flu had the condition, according to a report presented today at a vaccine conference at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Extremely obese people make up 6 percent of the population and 7 percent of swine flu deaths.

For the seasonal flu virus that strikes every year, obesity isn’t considered a separate risk factor, and global health authorities were studying a possible link with swine flu complications from anecdotal reports by hospitals. After analyzing the available data, scientists at the CDC today said there was no unique threat for the overweight.

“Obesity should not be considered a new risk factor,” said Anthony Fiore, a CDC researcher.

This finding raises a number of important issues. First, the percent of people without risk factors who died of the new pandemic flu will necessarily go up. How much will depend on how many people who were said to have had underlying conditions were simply obese. Second, how many other supposed underlying conditions are actually found in the general population at the same rate at which they are found among pandemic flu fatalities?

It is important to identify exactly what the real risk factors are so that the right people are appropriately warned. For example, although Down’s syndrome is relatively rare, a number of people with this condition have been reported to have died of the new H1N1 virus. It is also important that the general public be told what percent of the deaths are occurring in people with no underlying conditions. Many people have the impression that only people who are already very ill are dying from pandemic flu. This false, and dangerous, assumption needs to be corrected.

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