Surge in UAE demand for Ozempic diabetes injections for weight loss: Doctors

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A surging number of residents in the United Arab Emirates are heading to health clinics, pharmacies and hospitals across the country trying to get their hands on diabetes injections such as Saxenda and Ozempic to use the medications for weight loss.

Doctors in Dubai told Al Arabiya English that interest has peaked after videos on TikTok and advertisements on Instagram have promoted the drugs as a miracle cure for stubborn fat – as residents are warned they cannot simply wander into a pharmacy to get their hands on the drug.

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A stock photo of a nurse filling a syringe. (Reuters)
A stock photo of a nurse filling a syringe. (Reuters)

Al Arabiya English reported last week how the drugs – injections that typically treat diabetes – used for weight loss without a doctor’s prescription are far more dangerous than people think, with experts saying the recent diet fad has worsened the global shortage of such medications.

In the UAE, Dr. Aswin Pankajakshan, a specialist endocrinologist at NMC Royal Hospital, DIP, Dubai, said there has been a “considerable surge in interest” for the drug.

“Of late, there has been a considerable surge in the use of Semaglutide (Ozempic) worldwide, including in the UAE, as influencers across social media platforms like TikTok are popularizing Ozempic as a weight loss drug,” the doctor told Al Arabiya English.

“We see at least four patients a week who come enquiring about Ozempic to use as a weight loss drug. This has led to a shortage of medications over the world, which can affect the availability of these medications for the much-needed diabetic patients.”

Dr. Pankajakshan said Semaglutide (Ozempic) & Liraglutide (Saxenda) are newer drugs that are used in the management of diabetes. They were later also approved for the management of obesity by the US FDA.

Semaglutide (Ozempic) is a once-weekly injectable medication but has not yet been approved for weight loss in non-diabetic patients by the UAE health authorities.

Liraglutide (Saxenda) is a once-daily injection approved for weight loss and has been available for many years.

“But the once-weekly administration has made Semaglutide (Ozempic) hugely popular as compared to the once-daily Saxenda,” said Dr. Pankajakshan. “Semaglutide works in multiple ways; it produces a sense of fullness and satiety early by working on appetite centers in the brain. It also slows down the stomach emptying and, in general, reduces calorie intake.”

Side effects

However, the doctor warned of the side effects of the drug.

“Semaglutide can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, and other gastrointestinal symptoms. Though these medications are well-proven in the management of obesity, these medications should only be taken after discussing with your obesity physician or endocrinologist the pros and cons of taking these medications,” Dr. Pankajakshan told Al Arabiya English.

“And as long as the supply constraints for this medication persists, people should refrain from using this medication for weight loss alone so that much needed diabetic patients are not short of their prescription medication.”

‘Huge’ shortage of drug

Dr. Fadi Baladi, medical director and a consultant in internal medicine at Burjeel Day Surgery Center, Al Reem Island, Abu Dhabi, said, due to demand, there is already a shortage in Ozempic.

“There is a trend of people promoting diabetes injections as a solution to lose weight through social media platforms. These are prescribed medications that cannot be given to just anyone who walks into the pharmacy.”

He continued, “The shortage we have right now is related to the over-demand for medications like Ozempic. This medication is FDA-approved for obesity if there are no contraindications and the patient fits the criteria.”

“Over-demand and transportation issues have led to the huge shortage. In such cases, we give patients the option of opting for drugs made with similar ingredients. We explain to the patients about the alternatives that do not have FDA approval and make them aware of the risks. These medications are again provided only if they meet the qualification criteria.”

Obesity is a chronic condition that cannot be fixed by taking medicines for two-three months, according to Dr. Baladi.

“The patient needs to make a lifelong commitment to fix obesity and lifestyle modification must be considered,” he added.

“Physicians carefully assess the criteria, including BMI and other factors, before prescribing such medications. The candidate selection process must be done by a physician who is qualified. People with uncontrolled diabetes and weight issues are ideal candidates for these medications if they have no other side effects or contraindications.”

“We need to ensure no underlying conditions will interfere with the medication. The patient needs to be evaluated thoroughly and carefully in terms of contraindications, side effects and adverse reactions and we need to ensure these medications are not reacting with other medications being taken by the patient.”

According to Dr. Baladi, some other side effects of this medication include liver, kidney, pancreas, and thyroid issues

“But such side effects can be monitored and controlled by the physician. Hence, these medicines are not for someone who is walking around with a few extra kilograms but doesn't want to go to the gym. These medicines are not replacements for lifestyle modification as there is a possibility of gaining weight immediately after stopping them.”

Earlier this week, Clinical Dietitian and Weight Reduction Counselor at Mediclinic Parkview Hospital in Dubai Dr. Mona Joumaa also pointed out these medications have not been studied or tested in other patients.

“It is not safe to take these medications if you do not fit the criteria for which they have been approved. They have not been studied or approved for use in other patient populations, and their safety and effectiveness in those populations is not known.”

Experts have also said people who stopped using some of these medications, even if they were prescribed to them, have seen a rise in their blood pressure, and an increase in their cholesterol and blood glucose levels.

Al Arabiya’s Tamara Abueish contributed to this report.

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