Obesity, diabetes could make for the worst flu pandemic we’ve ever seen

Rapidly growing rates of obesity and diabetes—already threats to global health—will likely have fatal consequences in the case of a future flu pandemic, the Telegraph reported this week.

In a study published Oct. 8 in Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology, U.K. scientists dissected causes of the 1918 Spanish flu and compared how modern society would fare against a similar outbreak. If we faced the same pandemic today, they found, rising rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes would push the death toll to 147 million.

That’s probably because pre-existing conditions like obesity can alter the body’s immune response, according to the Telegraph. Scientists are unsure of why patients with diabetes or those who are overweight are more likely to land in the hospital or die from the flu, but if a patient’s immune response is compromised by comorbidities, they may have a reduced ability to fight the virus.

“There’s been an incredible rate of increase of diabetes and obesity even in my lifetime,” Kirsten Short, a virologist at the University of Queensland, told the Telegraph. “But because chronic diseases have risen in frequency in such a short period of time, we’re only starting to appreciate all of the consequences.”

Short said that as the global population ages, rates of chronic disease will rise, too, meaning even a mild flu pandemic could evolve into a severe one. And though scientists can’t predict the next major outbreak, “we know that there will be one,” she said.

The study’s authors also suggested increasing antibiotic resistance and climate change could worsen future outbreaks.

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