A national obesity charity is recommending more provinces prioritize people living with the chronic disease for the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We feel that all Canadians should be protected against the COVID virus,” Ximena Ramos Salas, Obesity Canada's director of research and policy, said. “However, from an evidence-based perspective, we have seen that people living with chronic diseases, including people living with obesity, which is a chronic disease in itself, is a risk factor for developing more severe COVID illness.
“So, we feel it’s very important to prioritize people who are at a higher risk for these outcomes, and that includes people living with obesity.”
The World Health Organization has identified obesity as a risk for becoming severely ill from COVID-19. People who are living with obesity have a higher risk of hospitalization and mortality.
However, only four provinces currently prioritize people living with obesity for the COVID-19 vaccine: Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and, just this week, Quebec.
“It’s scary, because we’re talking about 8.4 million Canadians that live in a larger body or that could be having obesity that represent a huge portion of our population,” Ramos Salas told NEWS 95.7's The Rick Howe Show. “And if those individuals don’t feel respected or don’t feel like they belong in our community and that they don’t have the same rights as every other Canadian, then that affects their behaviour and their health outcomes.”
In March, Ramos Salas wrote a blog post for Obesity Canada calling for more education on obesity and why people living with the chronic disease must be prioritized.
"Unfortunately, due to the lack of understanding of obesity as a chronic disease in the health system and in the public, we have seen a backlash against people with obesity for being prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccination," she wrote in the blog post. "This lack of understanding of obesity as a chronic disease is due in part to the pervasive weight bias and stigma that exists in our society."
Weight bias — a negative belief or attitude that stems from a person’s body weight — is one issue that Ramos Salas said is affecting the community.
For instance, someone who’s living with obesity may feel they don’t deserve the same rights as other people and that there are more important populations that should be vaccinated.
Ramos Salas said these attitudes are still “quite prevalent” all around the world.
“But in Canada and the U.S., specifically, we’ve seen that attitudes against people living with obesity — negative attitudes — have actually increased,” she said. “So, at the same level as we have seen an increase in the prevalence of obesity at the population level, we’ve also seen an increase in negative attitudes towards people living with this disease.”
It's important to understand treating #obesity is about improving health, not weight loss. This is why vaccine prioritization for people with obesity is an effective tool in our #COVID-19 vaccine strategy. For more information visit our website at https://t.co/1m3x5hFNpi pic.twitter.com/716AlkHYPn— Obesity Canada - Obésité Canada (@ObesityCan) March 26, 2021
She said one thing that can be done to reduce weight bias and the stigma toward people living with obesity is increasing education about obesity as a chronic disease.
“We know that obesity is a very complex chronic disease,” she said. “There are a variety of factors that can cause obesity, not just eating unhealthy and exercising too little like most people believe. So, we need to change that belief.”
She said obesity is not a self-inflicted choice where people choose to eat unhealthily and avoid exercise.
It's a treatable chronic disease that's caused by several factors including environment, genes, emotional health and lack of sleep. In fact, treating obesity should be focused on improving one's overall health, not just about weight loss.
Obesity has often been diagnosed only when a person's body mass index (BMI) is higher than 30.
But Ramos Salas said obesity can't be diagnosed by just a person's BMI. Instead, more clinical data is necessary to determine how a person's body weight is impacting their overall health.
Stigma has also been an issue that negatively impacts people living with obesity.
At Obesity Canada, Ramos Salas said there’s a community of patients living with obesity who share issues of weight bias and stigma.
“There’s a lot of conversation in our community about how people are hesitant about going to get the vaccine,” she said.
On top of weight bias, another reason for hesitancy is because some people living with obesity are afraid of being asked about their weight or body mass index.
"A lot of people feel that if we stigmatize people, if we shame them, they’re going to change their behaviours and that they’re going to go and try to lose weight and be healthier,” Ramos Salas said. “Well, the evidence shows the opposite. When you shame somebody, it does not help them change their behaviours; it makes things worse.”