There’s been a lot of research findings about obesity in the past few decades, but this seems to be the weirdest yet: As reported in the August 2005 ASM News (from the American Society of Microbiology) and the January 2005 International Journal of Obesity, some think that you can get fat by catching the fat flu.

Well, not flu exactly, but a human adenovirus called Ad-36. Most adenoviruses cause cold-like symptoms, but this one seems to also trigger weight gain. Richard Atkinson (president of the American Obesity Association) and others at the University of Wisconsin tested obese and non-obese individuals for antibodies against Ad-36. Antibodies serve as evidence of current or past exposure to the virus.

Among the heavier group, roughly one-third had been exposed to the virus, whereas only one-tenth of the skinny folk had. Those who had the antibodies were an average of 50 pounds heavier than those that did not. Coincidence? Three related viruses were found not to differ, on average, between the husky and not.

According to Atkinson (that’s Atkinson, not Atkins), Ad-36 changes fat metabolism so that humans and other animals pack on more pounds while eating the same amount of food. This gain appears to be slow and steady, so if one gets the heads up, he or she could ward off the weight by lifestyle changes. Still, doesn’t seem fair, does it?

“If someone sneezes on you in an elevator, you may become fat,” Atkinson says. I imagine this could lead to a chilling social phenomenon. Although overweight folks have been traditionally ridiculed and somewhat excluded in our society, the plump have become more accepted as more folks find themselves in that category. Might they now be required to wear surgical masks? Be quarantined in fat farms? Might overweight kids be even more ostracized in grade schools for having “fat cooties”? Let’s hope that, instead, this leads to greater understanding of obesity as a physical and cultural problem instead of an assumed character weakness.