Is obesity contagious? The surprising news that some obese children are more apt to carry a common cold virus than slimmer children has many people wondering. If the potential link between the adenovirus 36 and childhood obesity turns out to be real, then someday new obesity treatments might be tailored to attack the virus to treat or prevent childhood obesity, an epidemic that affects 17 percent of American children and teenagers.
There have been other unexpected discoveries of microbes causing disease, the most famous being the bacterium Heliobactor pylori, which turned out to be the major cause of stomach ulcers. In the early 20th century, ulcers were thought to be caused by stress and excess stomach acid, and sufferers were told to rest and eat bland food. In 1982, when two Australian physicians first said H. pylori caused ulcers, the international medical community scoffed. It took more than a decade for that fact to be accepted as true. An H. pylori test and antibiotics are now the recommended treatment for ulcers.
The new report on child obesity and viruses, published in Pediatrics, found that children who had been exposed to the adenovirus 36 were more likely to be obese than children who were never infected, with 22 percent of obese children having antibodies to the virus, compared to 7 percent of normal-weight children. The antibodies indicate that the body's immune system has tried to defend itself against the virus, a sign of prior exposure or infection. The study tested 67 obese and 57 normal-weight children, and was led by researchers at the University of California-San Diego and Rady Children's Hospital.