The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has highlighted that individuals with behavioural risk factors commonly associated with non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as smoking, harmful alcohol use, obesity, and physical inactivity, are more likely to experience severe symptoms from COVID-19. These risk factors have been shown to increase the risk of NCDs, but less is known about their broader influence on communicable diseases. Taking a wide focus on a range of common communicable diseases, this review aimed to synthesise research examining the impact of behavioural risk factors commonly associated with NCDs on risks of contracting, or having more severe outcomes from, communicable diseases.
Literature searches identified systematic reviews and meta-analyses that examined the association between behavioural risk factors (alcohol, smoking, illicit drug use, physical inactivity, obesity and poor diet) and the contraction/severity of common communicable diseases, including infection or associated pathogens. An a priori, prospectively registered protocol was followed (PROSPERO; registration number CRD42020223890).
Fifty-three systematic reviews were included, of which 36 were also meta-analyses. Reviews focused on: tuberculosis, human immunodeficiency virus, hepatitis C virus, hepatitis B virus, invasive bacterial diseases, pneumonia, influenza, and COVID-19. Twenty-one reviews examined the association between behavioural risk factors and communicable disease contraction and 35 examined their association with communicable disease outcomes (three examined their association with both contraction and outcomes). Fifty out of 53 reviews (94%) concluded that at least one of the behavioural risk factors studied increased the risk of contracting or experiencing worse health outcomes from a communicable disease. Across all reviews, effect sizes, where calculated, ranged from 0.83 to 8.22.
Behavioural risk factors play a significant role in the risk of contracting and experiencing more severe outcomes from communicable diseases. Prevention of communicable diseases is likely to be most successful if it involves the prevention of behavioural risk factors commonly associated with NCDs. These findings are important for understanding risks associated with communicable disease, and timely, given the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for improvements in future pandemic preparedness. Addressing behavioural risk factors should be an important part of work to build resilience against any emerging and future epidemics and pandemics.