Obesity could push up need for ventilators as SA heads towards peak

Data from two US hospitals have implications for SA, where obesity is above the global average.
Data from two US hospitals have implications for SA, where obesity is above the global average.
Image: 123RF / Sanephumjan

Many scientists say obesity increases your risk of death if you contract Covid-19, yet others say this isn't yet proven.

What they now know for sure, however, is that those with obesity are far more likely to need a ventilator, which means it is crucial for countries with high obesity prevalence (above 40%) to be prepared.

SA’s obesity levels are far above the global average, which makes the latest report from two New York hospitals especially relevant.

Authors from Weill Cornell Medicine set out to “study the association between obesity and outcomes among a diverse cohort of 1,687 persons hospitalised with confirmed Covid-19 at two New York City hospitals”.

The researchers found that obesity is a “risk factor for respiratory failure”, which explains why invasive mechanical ventilation has been “extensively used” in areas where obesity prevalence exceeds 40%.

“These findings thus support the need to consider the community-specific prevalence of obesity when planning a community's Covid-19 response,” said the researchers.

According to the Cancer Association of SA (Cansa), “obesity and its comorbidities negatively affect the lives of many South Africans”, and the resulting burden of disease placed pressure on the health-care system long before Covid-19 became a factor.

According to a health department study, more than half of South African women are overweight or obese, with the figure for black African women at nearly 60%. 

“Obesity-related diseases like hypertension and diabetes are spiralling,” said Cansa, adding that these comorbidities are also high-risk factors for tragic Covid-19 outcomes.

This adds to a growing body of knowledge regarding comorbidities and how they play out in Covid-19 scenarios.

The biggest data set to emerge from SA was released last month by the Western Cape health department when the province was still way ahead on its upward curve of the virus.

Headed by Prof Mary-Ann Davies, a public health specialist at the University of Cape Town, researchers collated information from 3.5-million patients in the public health system in the province.

Unfortunately obesity was a missing data set from the medical records, but the study revealed that if you have uncontrolled diabetes - a disease closely associated with obesity - your chances of dying from Covid-19 are more than 13 times higher.

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