What U of Maryland experts want you to know about Ozempic

In a world obsessed with the latest diet and fitness fads, new weight loss drugs are having a moment.

Oprah just did an hour long show on Ozempic, Wegovy, Mounjaro and related injectable drugs and how people shame and blame and think about obesity.

The drugs have been popularized for losing large amounts of weight, but Ozempic was specifically approved to treat diabetes. And the drugs are being considered, and studied, for other medical conditions, including a common fertility problem called polycystic ovary syndrome, menstrual irregularity and cardiovascular problems.

The rush to get them for a serious medical condition or to drop 10 or 20 pounds, however, means there are regular shortages and fakes abound. Drugs also have side effects and a significant price tag, which affects who takes them and stays.

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A panel of experts from the University of Maryland, Baltimore, addressed some questions about drugs during a webinar this week. Here’s what they think the public should know.

Do weight loss drugs work?

Semaglutide (sold under the brand names Ozempic and Wegovy) and tirzepatide (sold as Mounjaro) are approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to treat obesity and diabetes. They mimic a hormone that tells your brain you’re full, curbing food cravings.

The result is unprecedented weight loss, said Dr. Rozalina G. McCoy, an endocrinologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center’s Diabetes and Endocrinology Center and an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Most people who take the drugs lose 10% to 20% or more of their body weight within a year, which is usually not possible without drugs or surgery. However, they risk regaining up to two-thirds of their weight if they stop taking the drugs.

Obesity can cause, or worsen, health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer, McCoy said. These conditions improve with weight loss.

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There are a few other types of weight-loss drugs, but McCoy said none are considered as effective as the new drugs, although there is no information yet on long-term use.

Another option has been bariatric surgery, which is considered as effective as drugs. But such a serious procedure can put some people off because it carries risks of complications and a commitment to new eating patterns, such as small meals.

How serious are the side effects?

If you are taking a weight loss medication, you can expect some gastrointestinal issues, specifically nausea or diarrhea, which may subside over time, the panelists said. Reducing portion sizes and cutting back on fatty and spicy foods can help. The dose of medication, or even the type, can also be adjusted, the panelists are sad.

We tell them to watch their diet, said Charmaine Rochester-Eyeguokan, a professor of practice, science and health outcomes research in the university’s School of Pharmacy.

If they eat a lot of bacon and sausage and eggs and all that in the morning, and they take Ozempic, they’re going to have a lot of nausea, he said. We teach them to eat in a different way, a diet low in fat and not high in calories.

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What about mental health?

McCoy said some people stop enjoying food, causing a loss of quality of life.

Those who have experienced stigma about their body size may feel pressured to take the drugs, which have been called a weight-loss miracle, said Vashti Adams, a doctoral candidate in the university’s School of Social Work. If you don’t take advantage of it, you can be seen as irresponsible.

If people do not lose or regain weight, their sense of social worth may be further reduced and lead to new eating disorders or other conditions.

How much do these drugs cost?

McCoy said about 27 percent of employer-based insurance plans cover the average $1,000 monthly cost, but people with coverage can still face co-pays of hundreds of dollars a month. Some cover the drugs for a limited period of time, even though they must be taken for a long time.

Medicare, the federal health insurance for seniors, does not cover any weight loss treatment. Diabetics who need glucose monitoring can get coverage, but again, McCoy said, there are high co-pays.

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He said Medicaid, the program for low-income residents, covers weight-loss surgery, but only 10 percent to 20 percent of state programs cover the drugs. Although weight loss can prevent other expensive health conditions, the price of the drug is considered a budget drain.

The most important thing to get these drugs covered by insurance is to lower their price and make them much more affordable and accessible, he said, in addition to destigmatizing obesity treatment and making it clear that it is a chronic disease .

Plus, McCoy said, demonstrating to health plans that the benefit is immediate.

What happens when there is a shortage?

The drugs are in such high demand that their spurred counterfeit products that look similar but won’t work or could even be dangerous, panelists said.

Consumers should be wary of online ads and other media to avoid regulated supply routes, said Masha Yemets, a clinical toxicology fellow at the Maryland Poison Center at the university’s School of Pharmacy.

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A major red flag is if no prescription is required or if you don’t see a prescriber or provider, he said. A few extra steps are required to ensure that what you receive is safe and effective.

Yemets says he makes sure the pharmacies where the drug is purchased are listed on the state board of pharmacy website. The FDA also maintains a list of licensed pharmacies in good standing, he said.

Meredith Cohn is a health and medical reporter for The Baltimore Banner, covering the latest research, public health developments and other news. He has been covering the beat in Baltimore for over two decades.

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