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Research Reluctance: COVID-19 Is Keeping Kids Away From Participating in Studies

Child obesity research from Texas Health Resources and UT Southwestern is in danger of not being completed because of a lack of participants.
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Dr. Tony Babb has been conducting studies for 30 years and has never seen anything like what is happening now. He has struggled to find enough participants to complete the five-year obesity he and his colleagues are working on due to COVID-19.

For years, researchers sent an email blast to patients and other families within the health system’s network and worked through health awareness programs with the YMCA to recruit study participants, who were compensated for their time. That was usually all they needed to do, but the pandemic has upended their efforts. YMCA program cancelations and a fear of the virus have left families weary of participating in the study.

Babb is a professor of internal medicine at UT Southwestern and director of the Cardiopulmonary Laboratory at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine (IEEM) at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas and has been leading an obesity study for four years for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The findings have been groundbreaking but have come to a standstill because they need 15 more children to participate.

The NIH expects the study to finish by the summer of next year, but the study may never be published if they run out of time.

The five-year study analyzes how body weight affects lung function, exercise fitness, and breathlessness in children aged eight to 12. While plenty of studies have been done on adult obesity, relatively few have looked at childhood obesity, which impacts one-third of American children ages 2 through 9 in the country, compared to 15 percent in the 1970s. The study includes lung testing, exercise testing, and body composition analysis and is usually fun for the participants. With a goal to enroll 96 children, the investigation has stalled at 81, most of which signed up before the pandemic. While the deadline will be extended because of the pandemic, Babb and his team are still worried about completing the research in time.

“There is fear of getting out or coming to the facility, even though it’s a very closed, safe environment for the children,” Babb says. “Safety is our number one item when we bring in anybody for testing. There could be an element of overload for parents with the schooling of the children, canceling all types of adventures that they might have as children, and they are just exhausted.”

The pandemic has made the study more timely. Because of interrupted activities and more time inside over the past 18 months, children’s respiratory health has become an item of concern for families. Babb notes that many of our conceptions about obesity and health may be wrong, especially for children. It is still unclear why obesity causes shortness of breath. Many children are diagnosed with asthma and given an inhaler to treat shortness of breath, when obesity may be the cause rather than asthma. Studying children during the pandemic and measuring its impact on their health could provide even more insight.

“Is there a link between obesity and asthma? And does one provoke the other, or is it something unique that occurs in these children?” Babb asks. “We wanted to know, is it just the obesity itself that relates to the shortness of breath that they might have?”

With the stalled participants, researchers are looking at upping the compensation and finding other avenues to attract participants. Babb emphasizes that the studies are as safe an environment as one can get, with COVID-19 testing, masking, air circulation precautions, and special air filters to improve ventilation. “It’s a very safe place for them to be, and we’ve tried to communicate that,” Babb says. They may have the idea that they are going to a hospital, but that’s not the case at all. It’s a very closed environment.”

The study is open to children ages 8 through 12, emphasizing children who struggle with their weight. Parents who wish to enroll their child in the study can call 214-345-6574 or email [email protected].

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