Weight-loss drugs help address a major health issue but require proper safeguards

Save articles for later

Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time.

Diet fads come and go almost as often as the seasons. While they range widely in the types of food they endorse, they all demand a strict dietary regimen and exercise. That may well be the reason for the success of a new form of dieting drug that has rapidly gained popularity after being endorsed by some high-profile celebrities.

Ozempic was created by Danish drug company Novo Nordisk in 2012 to assist people with type 2 diabetes. It contains semaglutide, which stimulates cells that make insulin while suppressing glucagon, affecting blood glucose levels. It mimics a hormone that we produce in our intestines which signals to our bodies that we are full, therefore suppressing appetite and leading people to feel full for longer.

Many people are looking to new drugs to help them lose weight.Credit: Dionne Gain

The drug was approved in Australia in 2019 and, a year later, was listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, bringing the cost down to about $40 for a monthly course of weekly injections. While it has proven effective for many people in managing diabetes, it is the drug’s weight loss properties that have been attracting the most attention.

Compared with past weight-loss medications, some of which were amphetamines with severe side effects, the downside of this new drug, in most cases, is more manageable. That is not to say it is risk-free. It is common for those taking the drug to experience nausea and diarrhoea. The most serious potential side effects are pancreatitis – inflammation of the pancreas which causes severe stomach pain that doesn’t go away – and allergic reactions that include rashes, shortness of breath and swelling of the lips and tongue. There are also reports that the drug is so effective at suppressing appetite that some people suffer from malnutrition.

The high demand for Ozempic and other similar drugs has led to a number of online telehealth sites offering them for sale. While under Australian law they are legitimate businesses, The Sunday Age has found that, at times, some are allowing the new drug to be bought without the buyer ever speaking to a doctor face-to-face and with scant verification of a person’s identification. The Medical Board of Australia has warned that some companies are falling short of its guidelines, and has moved to crack down on doctors handing out prescriptions based only on a patient’s written answers.

Nearly a third of Australians live with obesity, categorised by a body mass index (your weight divided by your height squared) over 30. It should not be forgotten that obesity is not always the result of making unhealthy choices. Some scientists and campaigners have argued for years that it is a disease that needs to treated as such. Drugs such as Ozempic, or Wegovy, which has a higher dose of active ingredient semaglutide and is specifically for weight loss, could be the answer.

But it’s clear that for a drug in such demand, and with the potential for companies to make substantial profits from its sale, it needs far greater regulation than is in place today. The Medical Board of Australia issued draft guidelines earlier this year that would effectively ban patients from receiving the drug without talking in person to a doctor. These should be enacted without delay.

But it can’t stop there. To ensure the safety of people using such drugs, doctors need to monitor patients closely with regular check-ins to make sure any side effects are managed and that a person’s loss of hunger does not lead to malnutrition.

For most people, a healthy lifestyle is always going to be the essential factor in avoiding obesity. For others, medical intervention will be required. Australians should have the option of choosing what path is right for them, but medical authorities must ensure that if people do choose to use drugs to lose weight, appropriate safeguards are in place.

Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.

Most Viewed in National

Source: Read Full Article