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Treating the Obesity Epidemic

Drugmaker Vivus saw its experimental weight-loss medication, Qnexa, pass two Phase III clinical trials C&EN reported on September 10, and the company’s share price skyrocket.

The rewards of developing a safe and effective anti-obesity medication will be in the tens of billions of dollars, according to Bloomberg. Of course, such apparent breakthroughs are going to hit the headlines, big time. After all, who wants to reduce calorie intake and increase exercise levels when popping a pill could solve one’s weight problems?

In the developed world, overweight and obesity (BMI > 30) and other diet-related problems, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome, are on the increase. And, while it might be assumed that the billions of people who live in abject poverty with the daily threat of acutely lethal diseases, such as malaria, have other things to worry about, the diseases we commonly associate with the “Western” lifestyle are emerging across the globe. The WHO says that, perhaps with the exception of sub-Saharan Africa, deaths caused by chronic diseases dominate the mortality statistics.

Astoundingly, WHO figures from 2005 suggested that there are more people suffering from overweight-related problems than malnutrition. At the time, globally there were more than 1.6 billion people aged over 15 years who were overweight and 400 million of those were clinically obese, while around 800 million suffered from malnutrition. Those numbers are already changing. The WHO predicts that by 2015, approximately 2.3 billion adults will be overweight and more than 700 million will be obese.

The costs in terms of loss of quality of life and impact on healthcare providers in the developed world are likely to be unsustainable in terms of demands on surgical and drug treatments.

While much of the focus on the obesity epidemic is aimed at the US, high rates of cardiovascular disease associated with poor nutritional choices, dietary trends, and exercise issues ring just as true in the UK.

Andreas Anastasiou of the Department of Agricultural and Food Economics at the University of Reading, and a quantitative risk analyst at the Bank of Santander, London, UK and Athanasios Anastasiou a lecturer at the Technological Education Institute of Patras, Greece and an economist at the University of Patras, recently highlighted the sorry state of the British diet and the burden the growing obesity problem will ultimately have on the economy and society as a whole.

Here are just a few of the UK obesity facts and figures cited by the authors:

  • 30,000 – deaths a year
  • 9 years – average life reduction
  • 18 million – working days lost
  • £1 billion – cost to National Health Service
  • £2.5 billion – cost to the economy

Obesity and associated chronic diseases are a serious threat to a nation’s health and well-being, the researchers say. “Their impact on the economy and society as a whole is tremendous exhibiting enormous healthcare costs and losses in working hours and years of life.” They suggest that improvements will happen if long-term changes to food choices and dietary habits are made, whether this should come top down from government and healthcare providers is difficult to say. How ever it is achieved, you can be almost certain that popping a pill will not be the cure all, despite what pharmaceutical share prices might suggest.

Research Blogging Icon Andreas G. Anastasiou, & Athanasios Anastasiou (2009). The effects of current dietary trends and consumption patterns on health: evidence from the UK Int. J. Behavioural and Healthcare Research, 1 (3), 318-333

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