Is obesity contagious?

By Amanda Johnson 22/09/2010

Widely reported this week is new research suggesting that obesity may be caused (in part) by a virus, with Science Daily commenting on this issue — followed by an article in the New Zealand Herald yesterday.

The idea that you might be able to ‘catch’ obesity, although this sounds bizarre, is not new! There were reports about a viral cause of obesity found by US researchers early last year in the UK newspaper, The Daily Mail. And Medical News Today reported in 2006 research from Wisconsin University which showed that human Adenovirus 37 made chickens obese.

These latest reports are based on a new study just published this week in the journal Paediatrics. The research study assessed the relationship between Adenovirus 36 (AD36) specific antibodies and obesity in children. A total of 124 children were studied, of whom 54% were obese. AD36 positivity was found in 19 children and the majority of these children were obese (15 of the 19 children).

So what is the mechanism involved? One of the authors, Jeffery Schwimmer, is reported by Science Daily as saying, ’In cell cultures, the virus infects pre-adipocytes or immature fat cells, prompting them to develop more quickly and proliferate in greater numbers than normal. This might be the mechanism for obesity, but more work needs to be done.’

This is a relatively small study so we probably shouldn’t get too excited until we see further research on this topic. Also, while there might be a big temptation to say ’I don’t need to diet — it’s not my fault I am overweight as I (might) have a virus’ we should remember that even as more research emerges this virus — if indeed it is implicated in weight gain — is likely to be only a small part of the puzzle.

What we do know for sure is that obesity is a complex condition of multi-factorial aetiology and when devising strategies to combat this problem we need to look at a multi-pronged approach — including not only diet and physical activity but also cognitive behavioural therapy, and for some pharmacotherapy and even surgery may be indicated.

And who knows – in the future we might also be looking at treatments for the AD36 virus!

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