The world has been grappling with the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) for months.
Due to its devastating impact on people’s lives, the disease has taken a centre stage in discussions about health globally.
In Kenya, for instance, the Health ministry has made the condition a priority since the first Covid-19 case was reported in the country in March.
Due to the prominence given to the condition, as well as enhanced awareness about the coronavirus disease, many Kenyans have been paying attention to prevention guidelines such as hand-washing, social distancing and mask wearing.
In addition to these prevention approaches, health experts are urging people to pay attention to seemingly harmless underlying conditions that can increase the severity of the disease and survival chances among the infected.
Key among them is obesity, which is currently on the rise in the country.
The Ministry of Health statistics from the Kenya Stepwise Survey for Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) show that more than a quarter (27 percent) of the country’s population is either overweight or obese.
These individuals have an increased risk of suffering from severe symptoms of Covid-19.
A new study published in the Obesity Reviews Journal indicates that being obese increases the risk of Covid-19 infection as well as its severity.
In the paper, the researchers reveal a troubling connection between the coronavirus pandemic and the obesity crises that are increasingly affecting individuals globally, including Kenyans.
“From Covid-19 risk to recovery, the odds are stacked against those with obesity. And this new study raises concerns about the impact of obesity on the effectiveness of a future Covid-19 vaccine,” noted the researchers.
The research was conducted by US scientists from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health and the Carolina Population Centre, in collaboration with co-authors from the Saudi Health Council and the World Bank.
They examined published literature on individuals infected with the virus and found that those with obesity (body mass index higher than 30) were at a greatly increased risk for hospitalisation (113 percent) when suffering from Covid-19, compared to others who are free of the condition.
They were also more likely to be admitted to the intensive care unit (74 percent), and had a higher risk of death (48 percent) from the condition than people who were not obese.
According to the study, obesity increases the risk of people suffering from severe Covid-19 symptoms due to various factors.
First, the condition causes changes, such as insulin resistance and inflammation, which make it difficult for individuals with obesity to fight some infections.
The uncontrolled sugar levels brought about by the insulin resistance, often interferes with the functioning of body cells, hence compromising the immunity of affected individuals.
This is a trend that can be seen in other infectious diseases such as influenza and hepatitis.
“All of these factors can influence the immune system, which determines how bodies respond to infections such as the coronavirus disease,” said Melinda Beck, a co-author of the study and professor of nutrition at the Gillings School of Global Public Health.
The researchers also noted that individuals with obesity are also more likely to experience physical ailments that make fighting Covid-19 harder, such as sleep apnea, which increases pulmonary hypertension risk.
Moreover, obesity is already associated with many underlying risk factors for Covid-19, including heart ailments, type 2 diabetes, as well as chronic kidney and liver disease.
Worse still, the condition may make intubation difficult for patients with breathing difficulties caused by Covid-19.
Intubation is the process of inserting a tube through the mouth and into the airway of patients.
This allows them to be placed on a ventilator, which pushes air into the lungs and helps affected individuals to breathe.
Based on previous research done by Beck and other researchers, which demonstrated that the influenza vaccine is less effective in adults with obesity, the researchers warn that the same may be true for a future Covid-19 vaccine
“However, we are not saying that the vaccine will be ineffective in populations with obesity, but rather that obesity should be considered as a modifying factor for vaccine testing,” she said.
“Even a less protective vaccine will still offer some level of immunity.”
The researchers noted that lockdowns aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19 have led to a number of conditions that make it harder for individuals to achieve or sustain a healthy weight.
“Working from home, limiting social visits and a reduction in everyday activities — all in an effort to stop the spread of the virus — means we’re moving less than ever,” said Barry Popkin, the lead study author of the study and professor of nutrition at the Gillings School of Global Public Health.
Health experts are encouraging Kenyans to consider healthy diets and engage in sufficient physical activities (indoors or outdoors) during this time of Covid-19 so as to curb obesity and cope effectively with stress caused by the pandemic.
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