Second Opinion: Catching Fat Like a Cold


Aug. 17, 2000 -- Be forewarned: this is scary stuff, particularly if you happen to be obese. It’s bad enough that fat people in this thin-obsessed culture are often treated badly or like they belong in a zoo, but now watch out for signs of more extreme discrimination.

New scientific evidence screams out that fatness may be contagious! That’s right, one day you are svelte and really cool looking in your designer threads and then someone (possibly a very fat person) sneezes on you and bingo bongo a virus attacks you and you’re soon fat too.

The Obesity Contagion? What am I talking about? Last month, scientists reported in the International Journal of Obesity that inoculating chickens and mice with human adenovirus, or a virus that typically causes colds, causes them to put on fat. The researchers raised the question that humans may catch the fat virus, too.

This nightmarish idea that I can catch a fat virus is cascading through my brain as I sit in a crowded food court in a shopping mall in northern New York State. Nervously, I observe a steady stream of obese people strolling by merely several feet away. In fact, I’m also beginning to feel surrounded by fat people who are eating triple-cheese, all-dressed pizza or fries with gravy.

I begin to sweat profusely at the thought of contracting the obesity virus from one of these possible carriers.

The news reports I have been reading on this new horror give me the chills. For example, one pull-out quote in the magazine New Scientist (”The Obesity Bug,” Aug. 5) squirts up like a dollop of spicy ketchup, reminding me that “Should you be unlucky enough to get the virus, you’re overwhelmingly likely to end up fat.”

Catching Fattiness From Co-workers?

Another large-type quote in that magazine reads: “What does this mean for people who share buses and offices with carriers?”

No kidding. And what about being kissed by a fat person? Or hugged? Or even you know what?

Jeepers creepers! The smart and obvious move would be to invest heavily in surgical masks.

But realistically, masks might not be enough to ward off the threat to public health. The worried thin, led by guerrilla bands of celebrity fashion models, could declare war on the fat. There may even be calls for quarantining the obese.

Given that about 25 percent of the American population is obese, that might mean shipping all the fatties to Utah, North Dakota and Wyoming and erecting a very tall wall around those states.

“Nicholas, Nicholas,” an inner voice finally orders, “Stop this festering fear folly at once. Ignore the media headlines about how scientists have discovered an obesity bug and all the eye-catching quotes. Look at what the science actually suggests.”

Obesity experts Nikhil Dhurandhar and Richard Atkinson conducted research at the University of Wisconsin revealing that a virus known as adenovirus-36 (one of about 50 human adenoviruses, which typically can cause colds, diarrhea and red-eye) may somehow be involved in human obesity.

Obese People Had Antibodies

The researchers compared blood samples from 313 obese people with 92 lean people and found that 32 per cent of the obese showed signs of infection with Ad-36 in the form of antibody responses. Only four of the non-fatty set had antibodies.

The big question here is whether fat people are in some ways more vulnerable to becoming infected with Ad-36. In other words, maybe fatness comes first and then signs of the viral infection pop up. Maybe the body’s immune system, depressed to some degree by conditions triggered by obesity, is not as capable of warding off Ad-36.

This alone should give pause to anyone who thinks he or she will catch fatness from someone at the water cooler.

Mind you, the researchers have looked at other adenoviruses and found no difference in infection rates in fat and lean people. But so what? Research on Ad-36 and how it functions in the body is at best preliminary.

Fatness or Infection First?

Until, this serious scientific issue is settled — which comes first, fatness or the infection — maybe scientists and medical writers ought to clam up on heralding the discovery of an obesity virus in humans.

Furthermore, researchers have yet to pull live Ad-36 out of anyone, suggesting (as might be expected with a virus that will be attacked by the body’s immune system) that any infection with this virus may not be very long-lasting. In other words, it’s far from clear how transmission of this virus occurs in humans.

Previous studies on chickens, mice and marmosets showed that those injected with Ad-36 develop more body fat than non-injected animal controls. Is this what is happening in humans? Not necessarily. And if so, to what extent is fatness related to the action of the virus itself.

Even the researchers warn that genetic and environmental factors play a role in obesity. In the end, the virus may play a very small role, perhaps especially in people who regularly overeat

The fact is that there is generally more scientific evidence that microbes may play some role in a wide range of body conditions. After all, we co-exist with microbes and they are part of our evolutionary development.

But while it may well turn out that these obese people eating fatty foods in the shopping mall around me may indeed have a virus contributing to the process of fat-making, opting for a salad and exercise rather than pizza and eight hours of daily television watching might be an obvious way to help weight control.

In any case, Utah, North Dakota and Wyoming might not take kindly to calls for a new type of fatty farm.

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