Sunday, June 13, 2004


Below is an excerpt from the article that first revealed the truth behind those 'Three-year-old dies from obesity' headlines.

'When a three-year-old girl who weighs 40 kilograms dies of heart failure brought on by obesity, you know her parents are guilty of gross child abuse....'

That was one commentator's verdict on the tragic death of a young Bengali girl in a London hospital, brought to Britain's attention by the UK House of Commons Health Select Committee's report on obesity, published on 27 May.

Was this child really stuffed to death, overfed by uncaring parents until her heart packed in? Can we even say that she 'died from obesity', let alone that her death sounds the alarm for a coming obesity epidemic? There are experts on childhood obesity - including one who has some experience in dealing with this particular child's case - who very much doubt it. They think that the way in which this tragic, rare, isolated incident was made public and then discussed by the media has been a disgrace.

'I was horrified and quite upset at how this death was portrayed', says Dr Sadaf Farooqi, a clinician scientist at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge. 'The suggestion is that the parents caused the child's death by allowing the child to get so obese. No thought or consideration was given to the fact that for a child so young to become so obese, it's highly likely that there is some medical cause, some genetic cause, to their obesity.'

Dr Sadaf Farooqi is in a good position to know that there was a medical condition behind the three-year-old's extreme weight problem. 'I know there was a genetic cause to the child's obesity, because I identified it', she tells me..... Farooqi declines to tell me what the genetic defect was, 'because it would probably identify the family and we don't want to do that'. But it's fair to say that, where this death was presented as an open-and-shut case of death by overeating where parental neglect was the main culprit, it was nothing of the sort? 'Nothing of the sort', says Farooqi. 'That was shocking, the notion that this death shows what can happen to any three-year-old who eats too much. No, there was something different in this case, something medical, and that should have been taken into account.'

Despite the fact that there likely was some complicated medical cause to the three-year-old child's obesity, and that this disturbing case is virtually a one-off, which has shocked even those who care for obese seven, eight and nine-year-olds, the death has been transformed into a warning sign that all parents must heed. The three-year-old's death has featured in articles about children's eating habits, growing waistlines and parental responsibility, as if death by heart failure could happen to any toddler who likes fizzy drinks and chocolate. 'The death has become part of the discussion about what children eat', says Farooqi, 'when in fact it was the result of something else entirely. We are mixing up children's weight issues with distinct medical problems'.

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