Obesity appears to be a risk factor on a par with pregnancy for developing complications from an infection with pandemic H1N1 influenza, according to the most comprehensive look yet at swine flu hospitalizations.
About a quarter of those hospitalizations complications have been in people who were morbidly obese, even though such people make up less than 5 percent of the population. That fivefold increase in risk is nearly the same as the sixfold increase observed in pregnant women, according to the report published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Even the merely obese were at increased risk of severe cases of swine flu, the analysis found. Although 34 percent of Americans are obese, they accounted for 58 percent of the hospitalizations in the study.
“It makes intuitive sense,” said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who noted that obese people have a higher risk of many diseases and thus a lower life expectancy. “It should be added as one of the underlying conditions.”
The CDC considers adults to be obese if their body mass index is 30 or above and morbidly obese if their BMI tops 40. A person who is 5 feet, 8 inches tall would be obese if he or she weighs at least 197 pounds and morbidly obese if he or she weighs at least 262 pounds.
There are many possible explanations for the increased risk.
The lungs of obese patients are compressed because the abdomen presses up on the diaphragm. In addition, the chest wall is heavier so it’s more difficult for the lungs to stay inflated.
Both of those things make it difficult for blood and oxygen to travel throughout the lungs and fight infection, said Dr. Lena Napolitano, chief of acute-care surgery at the University of Michigan Health System. She recently published a report in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on 10 swine flu patients admitted to the ICU there; of the 10, nine were obese, including seven who were morbidly obese.
The compromised immune system of obese people probably also plays a role, said Dr. David Heber, director of the Risk Factor Obesity Program at the University of California, Los Angeles’ David Geffen School of Medicine. Scientists believe that obese people have a baseline level of inflammation that diminishes the body’s ability to fight diseases.