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Obese adults ‘spread influenza longer than people of a healthy weight’

Children and obese adults infected with influenza A, also known as the flu, transmit the virus longer than adults of a normal weight, according to a recent study. 

Obesity is already recognized as a factor that increases the risk of severe complications as a result of influenza, yet new findings published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases suggest obesity in adults extends the time the influenza A virus is “shed” by carriers by around 1.5 days.

The latest study monitored 1,783 people in 320 households over the three flu seasons between 2015 and 2017. Obese adults with one or more symptoms of the influenza A virus shed the virus for more than twice as long as non-obese adults.

“This is the first real evidence that obesity might impact more than just disease severity… It might directly impact transmission as well,” commented senior study author Aubree Gordon, PhD, of the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

The authors of the study propose chronic inflammation caused by obesity could be the reason why influenza A is transmitted for longer by those who fall into this category. Working to reduce obesity rates could be an important target in the drive to limit the spread of infectious viral diseases, they suggested. 

More than 93.3 million US adults are obese, a figure equating to nearly four in ten people (39.3 percent) and the highest rate on record, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics. The government’s Healthy People 2020 drive set a goal of reducing adult obesity from the 2005-8 levels of 33.9 percent, to 30.5 percent in 2020, a target it seems unlikely to achieve. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend yearly vaccination against influenza for everyone aged six months and older. This year’s flu vaccine expired on June 30th 2018, but a new vaccine for the 2018-19 season will be available in the fall. 

Symptoms of flu are usually treated with over-the-counter medications, but prescription options, such as Tamiflu (oseltamivir), may be prescribed by physicians to lessen symptoms and reduce the recovery time. Tamiflu may also be used to prevent the flu in people who may have been exposed to the virus.  

Flu can be a particularly serious condition for certain people, notably those over 65 years of age, pregnant women and infants. Patients with medical conditions such as asthma, COPD, cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and cystic fibrosis are also at a higher risk of complications as a result of the flu. For those who fall into at-risk categories, it is vital to visit a physician or pharmacist to discuss vaccination ahead of the next flu season, which usually peaks at some point between November and March.