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WHO to Consider Adding Obesity Drugs to Essential Medicines List

FILE - A logo is pictured on the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland on November 22, 2017. (REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo)
FILE - A logo is pictured on the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland on November 22, 2017. (REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo)
WHO to Consider Adding Obesity Drugs to Essential Medicines List
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Drugs that fight obesity could for the first time be included on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) “essential medicines list.”

The United Nations health agency told Reuters the list is used to guide government purchasing decisions in low- and middle-income countries.

A group of WHO advisers will examine new requests for drugs to be included next month. The latest list of essential medicines is set to be released in September.

The request to consider obesity drugs came from three doctors and a researcher in the United States. Their request covers the active ingredient liraglutide, which is used in the obesity drug Saxenda. The drug, made by Novo Nordisk, is set to come off patent soon. The consideration is meant to permit the availability of less costly versions of such drugs.

WHO advisers could reject the request or wait for more evidence.

But if they approve the request to include Saxenda and any future drug versions, it would mark a new method of dealing with worldwide obesity.

However, some public health experts warn against introducing such medicines to the public as a solution to a complex condition that is still not completely understood.

The WHO said the group of experts would consider the evidence for liraglutide over the coming months. The group may also look into other kinds of weight-loss treatments in the future.

The WHO found over 650 million adults worldwide are obese, more than three times the rate in 1975. Another 1.3 billion people worldwide are overweight. Seventy percent of obese and overweight people live in low- and middle-income countries.

Expanding its reach

Including obesity drugs among the WHO’s essential medicines could make a major difference in poorer populations. Experts say that adding drugs for the disease HIV to the list in 2002 helped make such drugs more widely available to patients in lower-income countries.

The doctors and the researcher who requested the consideration wrote, “At present, there are no medications included in the (list) that specifically target weight loss for the ongoing global burden of obesity.”

They argue that the lack of weight-loss treatments goes against the idea of worldwide health equality. Poorer nations, they added, are seeing increased deaths from weight-related illnesses.

About the drugs

Saxenda is a once-daily injection. It has been shown to help people reduce 5 to 10 percent of their body weight. It is $450 per month in the United States and $150 per month in Europe.

Another drug made by Novo Nordisk, Wegovy, is a weekly injection. It costs more than $1,300 a month in the United States. People using it have lost up to 15 percent of their weight.

At the moment, Wegovy is in short supply. Novo is mainly working toward Wegovy’s launch in the United States and other wealthy markets.

Both drugs belong to a class of medicines called GLP-1 receptor agonists. Such drugs have been used for years to treat diabetes. The drug affects hunger signals to the brain and slow the rate at which a person’s stomach empties. As a result, people feel fuller longer.

For both Saxenda and Wegovy, there is a lack of long-term safety and effectiveness data for obesity. Studies suggest people will likely have to take the drugs for the rest of their lives to keep the weight off.

Novo Nordisk said in a statement it was not involved in the request to consider liraglutide for the WHO list. It added, “We welcome the WHO review and look forward to the readout and decision.”

I’m Gregory Stachel.

Jennifer Rigby reported this story for Reuters. Gregory Stachel adapted it for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

obese adj. fat in a way that is unhealthy

essential adj. extremely important and necessary

ingredient n. one of the things that are used to make a food or product

patent n. an official document that gives a person or company the right to be the only one that makes or sells a product for a certain period of time

specifically adv. in a definite and exact way

burden n. someone or something that is very difficult to accept, do, or deal with

review n. an act of carefully looking at or examining the quality or condition of something or someone


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