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Obesity, the silent Covid-19 comorbidity that could prove fatal

Obesity is the silent killer of Covid-19, and experts are warning South Africans that they should be more concerned about the impact it causes. Picture: Jennifer Burk via Unsplash.

Obesity is the silent killer of Covid-19, and experts are warning South Africans that they should be more concerned about the impact it causes. Picture: Jennifer Burk via Unsplash.

Published Aug 22, 2021


Cape Town - The prevalence of obesity in active Covid-19 patients poses a great health risk that could potentially lead to death, according to experts. According to Statistics SA, 68% of women, 31% of men and 13% of children in South Africa are obese.

In the Western Cape, 62.2% of women and 25.1% of men are overweight or obese. In the US, one-third of people hospitalised with Covid-19 are obese, and deaths due to Covid-19 have increased linearly with BMI.

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With a high obesity rate in South Africa, the amount of moderate-to-severe cases could soon follow suit.

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) latest comment on obesity in Covid-19 cases is that it remains a possible cause of death.

In a discussion paper dated August 17, 2021, WHO said: “People with obesity have a four-fold higher risk of developing severe Covid-19 disease than people with no obesity.”

Tygerberg Hospital endocrinologist Dr Ankia Coetzee explained that because Covid-19 targets the organs and tissues that are compromised by obesity, the virus will exacerbate existing symptoms.

“The virus also often leads to the unmasking of pre-existing conditions such as cardiac disease, due to the increased demands on the heart when having an infection.

“When intensive care and life support are required, obesity significantly impacts the medical fraternity’s ability to provide care.

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“It is generally more difficult to get venous access for drips and to ventilate these patients.”

UCT epidemiology and infectious diseases expert professor Landon Myer said obesity often made the body less able to deal with the infection of Covid-19.

“Obesity is associated with increased inflammation in the body, and so several of the inflammatory pathways through which Covid can cause disease are enhanced.”

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Coetzee added: “People with obesity are at increased risk for developing blood clots due to immobility and dysfunction of the body’s anti-clotting mechanisms.”

Myer says obesity is a risk factor for people who contract Covid-19 in the third wave.

“People who are obese are at increased risk of hospitalisation, severe illness and death.

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“People who are overweight (but not obese) may also be at increased risk, but the evidence is less clear,” he said.

Some of the obesity risk factors Myer listed are all associated with other chronic conditions, which includes diabetes, respiratory diseases like asthma, hypertension or heart disease.

“All of the above would be considered red flags,” he said.

The epidemiology expert said that South Africans who are obese should be concerned. Once they receive a Covid-19 diagnosis, there is a big chance of needing ventilation and a greater risk for death.

“Prevention is the best thing that can be done.

“Anyone who is obese, and especially people with these comorbidities, need to be vaccinated urgently.”

With working from home, a huge chunk of time is spent sedentary and has made exercise and healthy eating so much more difficult.

Coetzee believes that preventative measures need to be taken at a patient level and that policy reform is necessary.

“On a patient level, make savvy good choices and remember to eat for hunger and not comfort.

“Avoid processed foods and sedentary behaviour.

“On a public health level, efforts to combat obesity should be coordinated and prioritised to enable healthier choices.

“Policies should include school settings, economic instruments and nutrition labelling,” she said.

Weekend Argus

Related Topics:

Covid-19Health Welfare