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Could a childhood infection trigger obesity?

Provocative new research published today in the journal Pediatrics adds weight to the growing body of evidence that obesity isn't only a matter of behavior or genetics.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine checked 124 kids (median age 13.6 years) for the presence of antibodies to a virus known as AD36, an adenovirus that can cause upper respiratory tract or gastrointestinal illness and that has been associated in earlier studies with obesity. Sixty-seven of the kids were obese, and 57 were not.

They found evidence of such antibodies in 19 children altogether. Of those children, 15 -- or 78 percent -- were obese. Moreover, AD36 antibodies were more common among the obese children (15 out of 67) than in those who were not obese (4 of 57). Finally, the children who had AD36 antibodies were, on average, nearly 50 pounds heavier than those without the antibody.

One-third of U.S. children are overweight. (Carol Guzy-The Washington Post)

The findings come at a time when the medical community and others are struggling to understand why the prevalence of childhood obesity has tripled over the past 30 years. From the study:

Numerous studies have shown an increased risk for obesity to be associated with feeding behavior such as skipping breakfast or sedentary behavior such as the amount of time spent watching television, although a direct cause-and-effect relationship between such environmental factors and childhood obesity remains unproven. Moreover, it is unclear why some children are more vulnerable to an "obesigenic" environment. If obesity is not caused only by dietary excess coupled with decreased activity, then it is necessary to identify other etiologic factors. Genes play an important role in the risk for obesity but cannot explain the rapid change in its prevalence.

The study lists a number of potential ways in which infection with AD36 could promote obesity, but that mechanism remains poorly understood and needs much more research.

The authors make clear that the presence of AD36 antibodies in obese children does not constitute a cause-and-effect relationship; in fact, the authors note that obese children could have weakened immune systems that make them more vulnerable to such viruses, among other potential scenarios.

But should such a causal relationship be established, the link between AD36 and obesity could open up new avenues of preventing and maybe treating obesity. It could also, as the study notes, make life a bit easier for kids who are obese:

Obese children suffer severe stigmatization, contributing to feelings of social rejection and lessened self-worth. Negativity towards their condition can ostracize both obese children and their families. The possibility that excess weight gain in some children may be due to a viral infection could alter the public debate and perceptions regarding childhood obesity.

That alone would be a good thing, in and of itself.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  | September 20, 2010; 12:00 AM ET
Categories:  Childhood obesity, Kids' health, Nutrition and Fitness, Obesity  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: FDA investigates diabetes drug's safety
Next: Calories: To count, or not to count?


"There will come a time when you won't even be ashamed if you are fat!"

--Frank Zappa

Posted by: thrh | September 20, 2010 2:31 AM | Report abuse

"There will come a time when you won't even be ashamed if you are fat!"

--Frank Zappa

Posted by: thrh | September 20, 2010 2:32 AM | Report abuse

"There will come a time when you won't even be ashamed if you are fat!"

--Frank Zappa

Posted by: thrh | September 20, 2010 2:33 AM | Report abuse

Sorry. Didn't mean to post it three times. But the WaPo keeps using this cheapie screwed-up software.

Posted by: thrh | September 20, 2010 2:37 AM | Report abuse

We will never stop calling people fat until America stops being the materialistic culture of Wall Street. Stress also causes people to overeat.

Posted by: allset707 | September 20, 2010 7:52 AM | Report abuse

"...adds weight to the growing body..."

Now there's a great cliche to us in an article about childhood obesity.

Posted by: rashomon | September 20, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse

Just because 2 things are related does not mean one thing causes the other. I think the article had it right when it said some obese kids ate too much and didn't get enough activity. Before we can make any change in our lives we have to be honest about how we got to the state we are in, I don't think it was a cold virus. Just a hunch. Check out this great blog for some real, truthful health and wellness info:

Posted by: JSC22 | September 20, 2010 11:17 AM | Report abuse

Obese adults and children are too fat because they eat too much food. It is time to quit searching for other things to blame.

Posted by: mooreda | September 20, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

Certainly obese people got that way from eating too much food, in the same way that everyone eventually dies from cardiac arrest. But that's just the proximate cause. There is very likely a root cause we haven't found yet.

Posted by: sisina | September 20, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Obese children are that way because their parents made them that way, if you feed your kids enough junk instead of healthy food then let them sit on their big fat behinds then yes, they will be obese, for crying out loud, all your doing is giving them another reason to just keep eating, then all we'll hear is "I'm fat because I have an infection" boo hoo hoo, now give me another twinkie & McDonalds. Soooooooooo sick of this.

Posted by: stopthesprawl | September 20, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

As long as we keep giving our children hormones with their food, medication that can harm them and don't give them enough activity, they will continue to gain weight in a unhealthy manner. Recess Rocks is a program in Connecticut that teaches kids to be active in a fun and engaging manner so that they will be healthy and happy. If we continue to give our children unhealthy food and medication, we should at the very least teach them to to be active. Check out for more information.

Posted by: reinventingrecess | September 20, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, yeah, yeah....

Where did the "virus" come from?

Playstation 2?


Video game consoles?

Computer Games?

Access to "fast-food" places?

Access to "Junk Food?"

Parental genetics?

Lack of parents preparing lunches and youngsters stuffing themselves with school cafeteria food?

When was the last time you saw a group of neighborhood youngsters, playing ball in the street, after school, on their own initiative?

Posted by: Computer_Forensics_Expert_Computer_Expert_Witness | September 20, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Whatever happened to Koch's postulates, the foundation of modern medical microbiology, and proving that a specific pathogen caused an illness, rather than guessing, based on potentially flawed statistics?

Posted by: dre0251 | September 20, 2010 5:16 PM | Report abuse

"Obese adults and children are too fat because they eat too much food. It is time to quit searching for other things to blame."

Aah, but what makes obese people crave fatty foods and never feel full? That's the million dollar question.

I was googling the web the other day and found this info on "atypical depression" on the Mayo Clinic page: "When you have atypical depression, a particular pattern of signs and symptoms tends to occur. ... In addition to standard symptoms of depression, atypical depression symptoms also include:

* Increased appetite
* Unintentional weight gain

So not everybody can wave a magic wand and make a serious illness and its symptoms go away. People need to have a little compassion for people who are different from them.

Posted by: AdventurerVA | September 20, 2010 9:40 PM | Report abuse

This is perhaps the most ridiculous and over reported study of the month. 52 out of the 67 obese kids did NOT have this antibody. It can't be the cause of the fatness for them!

"When was the last time you saw a group of neighborhood youngsters, playing ball in the street, after school, on their own initiative?"

Happens all of the time in my neighborhood, but we have a little half-grass/half-dirt field. They play soccer, football, and cricket(!). We have a basketball court too, it's pretty busy. Of course, it's about 25% of the kids that are out there, about 75% are inside doing homework and watching TV.

Kids are overfed- too much soda, too much juice, dessert every single night, sugary snacks for breakfast, for their lunch- and huge portions. Food has become so cheap in the US that just about everyone has plenty of calories.

Posted by: staticvars | September 20, 2010 10:49 PM | Report abuse

stop looking for something to blame for obesity rather than looking in the mirror! why don't you get your kids outside and start feeding them healthier? check out for real weight loss info

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