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There were more than a million hospital admissions for obesity-related treatment in England in the year leading into the global pandemic, figures reveal.
The record number provides the clearest indication yet of the scale of the obesity problem as coronavirus started to spread across the UK. Being overweight is one of the most significant risk factors for severe COVID-19.
Experts say the data should be a wake-up call for tackling obesity.
The figures, published by NHS Digital, show a 17% increase in hospital admissions where obesity was a factor, compared with the year before. This amounts to almost 150,000 more instances of people being admitted to hospital over the course of a year.
The number of admissions where obesity was recorded as the main cause actually fell to 10,780 last year, from 11,117 in 2018-19. Women accounted for two-thirds (64%) of admissions where obesity was a factor.
Naveed Sattar, professor of metabolic medicine, at the University of Glasgow, says obesity is “the strongest risk factor for [Type 2] diabetes”.
“It’s a strong risk factor for heart disease, for heart failure, for lung disease, for kidney disease, for multiple other conditions,” he says.
“If we now add to that obesity is a strong risk factor for this acute viral pandemic which is killing people worldwide, then… this is a wake-up call.
“Many health systems and government really do now need to pay attention to obesity.
“We do need to tackle obesity and we need to take it seriously.”
Scientists are still trying to understand why the coronavirus poses such a risk to those significantly overweight.
Prof Sattar says there is some evidence heavier people have a higher viral load or more virus in their bodies than others and the virus triggers a dangerous response by the immune system.
“There may be a critical interaction between fat cells and the immune response which increases the likelihood of that immune response being exaggerated and harmful,” he says.
“We also know that people who are heavier have thicker blood to begin with, and this hyper-response thickens the blood even more. So the likelihood is that this thickness will clot off blood vessels and block blood vessels.
“People who are overweight, effectively have less capacity to deal with the damage Covid causes.”
And for many people, the pandemic has led to weight gain, early evidence suggests.
NHS England medical director Professor Stephen Powis said: “Today’s shocking figures are a growing sign of the nation’s obesity crisis which is putting hundreds of thousands of people at greater risk of becoming severely ill with Covid, as well as heart attacks, stroke, cancer and other deadly diseases”.
Source BBC News Online