'Poster child' for obesity died of gene abnormality

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Claims in a key report on obesity that a three-year-old girl had died as a result of being too fat were dismissed yesterday by researchers who maintained that she had in fact suffering from a genetic abnormality.

Claims in a key report on obesity that a three-year-old girl had died as a result of being too fat were dismissed yesterday by researchers who maintained that she had in fact suffering from a genetic abnormality.

The Commons health committee highlighted the case of the unidentified girl in the second of 411 paragraphs in its report on obesity, published two weeks ago. The report warned that overeating would soon kill more than smoking and that today's children would become the "first generation to die before their parents".

The committee's reports normally struggle to win publicity but in this case were given blanket coverage in the media.

Some newspapers, which identified the dead child as a Bengali girl from East London, accused the girl's parents of "stuffing her to death" while others said the case was a "wake-up call" for parents.

Correspondents to the Daily Mail said the parents should be charged with child neglect. The case was reported to the health sommittee by Dr Sheila McKenzie, a consultant who runs an obesity clinic at the Royal London Hospital.

Dr McKenzie submitted a one-page memo in which she said the girl had died of "heart failure secondary to extreme obesity" and that four other children who had breathing difficulties were being "choked by their fat".

In her memo, Dr McKenzie said that the "only solution" to the problem of childhood obesity was to reduce the availability to children of fatty, sugary foods and increase sport and exercise. She did not give oral evidence to the parliamentary committee and has since refused all requests for an interview.

A brief statement issued by Barts and The London NHS trust said yesterday that she had submitted her evidence "in good faith".

But specialists from Addenbrooke's hospital, Cambridge, also made a diagnosis of the girl's condition after being sent blood samples by Dr McKenzie's clinic.

They said yesterday that the girl had been suffering from a genetic defect that gave her an insatiable appetite and that it was "completely scientifically inappropriate" to link her case with the problem of childhood obesity.

Professor Stephen O'Rahilly, who heads the obesity research laboratory at Addenbrooke's, said he had decided to speak out because of the injustice done to the parents.

"When a child is exposed on the front page of The Sun as the poster child for the obesity problem it seemed to us rather cruel that this was being presented as an example of how parents were stuffing their children," he said.

"It seemed a terrible indictment of the parents when we knew there was a genetic defect in this child and we knew 100 per cent that was the cause of her obesity."

Professor O'Rahilly said there were seven genetic abnormalities which could cause gross obesity in children by damaging the appetite control mechanism. His laboratory, which has researched the genetic basis of obesity since 1995, had identified "hundreds" of children with the abnormalities which commonly caused gross obesity at a young age.

He added: "There is very little the parents can do to control it. If the fridge is locked they will eat frozen food straight from the freezer. It is desperately cruel to inflict blame on the parents for this type of problem."

Siblings of the girl who died are understood to be of normal weight, indicating that the fault did not lie with the parents.

David Hinchliffe, chair of the health committee and Labour MP for Wakefield, attacked the "unfair criticism" of the report and claimed it was driven by disagreements among obesity specialists.

"My suspicion is that there is more than a whiff of medical politics between the two groups of doctors concerned," he said.

The report had neither said, nor implied, that the girl died "because of an unhealthy diet," Mr Hinchliffe said.

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