Sweden adds obesity to list of coronavirus high risk groups

Sweden adds obesity to list of coronavirus high risk groups
A security guard outside a tent for coronavirus patients in Kristianstad. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT
In a new report, Sweden's National Board of Health and Welfare has identified a number of risk factors thought to be linked to more serious symptoms of the coronavirus, adding obesity and cancer treatments to the list.

The factors related to a higher risk from the coronavirus are:

  • Old age, classified as being 70 years old or older
     
  • Obesity, classified as a BMI (body mass index) of above 40
     
  • Intellectual disability and impaired mobility (multiple disabilities)
     
  • Cancer, or ongoing or recently concluded treatment for cancer
     
  • Neuromuscular diseases such as Parkinson, MS and ALS with an impact on muscle function
     
  • People with at least two of the following conditions: cardiovascular diseases (such as angina pectoris, heart failure, or stroke), hypertension, diabetes with complications, chronic kidney disease or renal failure, chronic lung disease (other than asthma) or chronic liver disease.
     
  • People with other serious illnesses such as immunodeficiencies, illnesses or residual conditions after illnesses that seriously affect certain organ functions, damage to the spinal cord with need of continual breathing support and treatment that can damage the body's defences against viral infections

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The agency put the report together at the request of the government, based on data from across the world and especially China, and will be revised as further data becomes available. Based on these calculations, the number of people in Sweden thought to belong to a risk group is around 200,000.

Having one of these risk factors doesn't mean a higher risk of becoming infected with the coronavirus, but is thought to mean a higher risk of experiencing serious illness caused by the virus.

The vast majority of coronavirus patients experience only mild symptoms and make a full recovery, but it can cause serious respiratory symptoms and even death.

The agency also said that a combination of more than one of these risk factors meant a higher overall risk.

What do I do if I'm in a risk group, or live with someone who is?

The Public Health Agency says that everyone who belongs to a risk group should limit direct social contact with other people, which means avoiding public places, public transport, and other contexts where you might come in close contact with other people.

There is currently no advice against leaving your home, for example to go for a walk, but you should keep a distance from other people. The Public Health Agency advises speaking to your doctor to find out exactly which precautions you should take.

The new report may also make it easier for employees with one of the named risk factors or their relatives to request to work from home, for example. Everyone in Sweden has been urged to work from home if possible, and the report says that those who live with people in risk groups should “from the perspective of reducing the spread of infection, avoid work outside the home if the working situation is such that the Public Health Agency's advice for protection against infection can't be followed”.

Why have the risk groups changed?

There are slight differences between the factors considered as risk factors in different countries, and within countries the definition may also change over time. One of the main reasons for this is that the coronavirus is a new disease, and new data is becoming available all the time as scientists learn more about how it acts and how it affects different people.

Obesity has been named as a risk factor by French officials since at least early April, and the UK's National Health Service also recently added it to its list of coronavirus risk factors. The other Nordic countries Denmark, Norway and Finland have also listed it as a risk factor, although they list different BMI values (over 30 in Norway, over 35 in Denmark, and over 40 in Finland).

What about pregnant women?

Pregnant women are not considered a risk group in Sweden, and the report states that this is based on the current data about people with the infection. If you are pregnant and are concerned, you should speak to your doctor.

The report states that “if measures are taken to reduce the risk of infection during the last months of pregnancy, this is due to the precautionary approach”.

What should you be doing to help reduce the rate of infection?

    In Sweden, the official advice requires everyone to:

  • Stay at home if you have any cold- or flu-like symptoms, even if they are mild and you would normally continue life as normal. Stay at home until you have been fully symptom-free for at least two days.
     
  • Practise good hygiene, by regularly and thoroughly washing your hands with soap and water, using hand sanitiser when that's not possible, and covering any coughs and sneezes with your elbow.
     
  • Keep distance from all other people when in public places. That includes shops, parks, museums, and on the street, for example. The World Health Organisation recommends keeping at least a 1.5-2 metre distance.
     
  • Avoid large gatherings, including parties, weddings, and other activities.
     
  • Work from home if you can. Employers have been asked to ensure this happens where possible.
     
  • Avoid all non-essential travel, both within and outside Sweden. That includes visits to family, planned holidays, and any other trips that can be avoided.
     
  • If you have to travel, avoid busy times such as rush hour if you can. This reduces the number of people on public transport and makes it easier for people to keep their distance.
     
  • If you are over 70 or belong to a high-risk group, you should stay at home and reduce all social contacts. Avoid going to the shops (get groceries delivered or try to find someone who can help you), but you can go outside if you keep distance from other people. Read more about the help available to those in risk groups here.
     
  • By following these precautions, we can all help to protect those who are most at risk and to reduce the rate of infection, which in turn reduces the burden on Sweden's healthcare sector.
     
  • Read more detail about the precautions we should all be taking in this paywall-free article. Advice in English is also available from Sweden's Public Health Agency and the World Health Organisation.

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