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People urged to stop getting Ozempic from ‘faceless’ illegitimate sources

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Last October, Britons were warned about the dangers of buying weight loss medication from illegitimate sources, after several people had to be hospitalised after taking fake versions of the drugs.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) cautioned the public that buying medications that contain the active ingredient semaglutide from “illegally trading online suppliers significantly increases the risk of getting a product which is either falsified or not licensed for use in the UK”.

But interest in drugs with semaglutide – including Ozempic, Wegovy, Mounjaro and more – has continued to soar, with medical professionals warning that people are still turning to unlicensed and unregistered providers for it.

Demand for Ozempic, in particular, continues to climb among people who want to use it for weight loss, which maker Novo Nordisk considers to be “off-label use”. Ozempic is only authorised as a medicine for patients with type 2 diabetes, and is no longer available in the UK for weight loss purposes – however, it is still used off-label, which is legal, and prescribed at the discretion of the prescriber.

According to Google search data analysis by weight loss clinic Simple Online Pharmacy, searches for Ozempic “exploded” by nearly 900% after new research by the European Congress of Obesity found that semaglutide has the potential to reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke or death due to cardiovascular disease by 20%.

This has been further fueled by the appearance of numerous celebrities who appeared to have lost a significant amount of weight in a short space of time. While only a handful have said publicly that they used Ozempic to lose weight, speculation about other celebrities using the medication is rife on social media.

An investigation by the Guardian published in May 2023 found that online pharmacies were approving and distributing prescriptions of drugs like Ozempic to people who were not overweight or obese.

The newspaper revealed that some people who lied about their body mass index (BMI) in online forms were prescribed the medications. It was also approved for people who truthfully admitted that they had a healthy BMI, which is between 18.5 and 24.9.

This is still happening, experts tell Yahoo UK. Lucy Jones, dietitian and chief clinical officer at NHS weight management provider Oviva, explains that some people are accessing Ozempic through online pharmacies or, in some more extreme cases, importing it from overseas.

“There’s really significant risks there around the authenticity and safety of those medications when people are importing them from other countries,” she says. “Ozempic is safe and appropriate for many people to take, but what’s missing when somebody accesses them through such means is that they are not being properly assessed for suitability.

“We have seen cases of people giving false data in order to access the medications outside of licensed prescribers. Some might inflate their weight data to make their BMI higher, or fail to disclose health problems that they’re living with out of fear that it might stop them from accessing the prescription.

Watch: Kelly Osbourne praises ‘miracle drug’ Ozempic – but maintains she’s never taken it

“This means that the risks are far greater than having a complication,” she explains. “In trials, where we monitor things like side effects and complications, [the medication] is only given to patients who have been deemed eligible and appropriate to receive it.”

Dr Charlotte Norton, chief medical officer at The Slimming Clinic – the UK’s largest online weight loss clinic – adds that these illegitimate sources are often “faceless”. Patients simply fill out a form that gets automatically approved, and don’t speak to any real people, whether medical professionals or otherwise.

“You’re just signing a form to say you’ve told the truth but nobody can actually ascertain if the information you’ve provided is true. This is incredibly risky when it comes to a prescription-only medication,” she says.

“The main concerns are, is what you are getting a legitimate drug, and whether the medication is actually suitable for you. It can make you unwell and put you at risk of certain conditions if it isn’t.”

At clinics like Oviva, patients are assessed by specialist dietitians, psychologists and doctors before they can be prescribed the medication – and that’s only if it is deemed appropriate, safe and right for that patient.

Dr Norton adds that The Slimming Clinic scrutinises patients for their family history or history of medical conditions, to ensure drugs like Ozempic are not being taken inappropriately.

These days, both clinics are more likely to prescribe Wegovy and Mounjaro, which are both authorised as weight loss treatments in the UK, instead of Ozempic.

Ozempic continues to be popular because of its prominence in media and online. Dr Jones adds that, because Ozempic has been around for much longer, it may be easier for people to get their hands on compared to Wegovy, for example.

However, she warns that patients are paying vast sums of money to feed this reliance on Ozempic, with most of it being sold for upwards of £200 for a months’ worth or injectables.

Meanwhile, weight loss support and management by Oviva is free and offered as part of the NHS. However, most patients need a referral from their GP to be eligible to join the programmes – something that many people are keen to bypass.

Those who are determined to get their hands on Ozempic no matter what would do well to be aware of how to tell if it’s real or fake.

Dr Norton advises that the first thing you must do is check the pharmacy the medication is coming from. “You should be able to find that pharmacy on the General Pharmaceutical Council, and be able to find out who the superintendent pharmacist is. That should give you a level of confidence.

“There are other things to look out for once you receive the medication, like the language on the box and whether it contains a patient information leaflet. You should also make sure it’s completely sealed when you get it.

“The liquid in the pen should be completely clear and colourless,” she adds. However, she warns that people should really consider consulting professionals before taking any kind of weight loss medication.

“If you’re not getting the right dosage, you could experience side effects like being extremely nauseous and vomiting. If you’re diabetic and already on a certain type of diabetes drug, and take it for weight loss, you can put yourself as risk of low blood sugar which leads to feeling faint and passing out.

“If you’re underweight and not eating correctly, it puts you at risk of feeling weak and fatigued. There are a lot of risks involved. Going to a legitimate clinic with medical professionals can help you ascertain that what you’re taking is appropriate for you based on your personal health and circumstances.”

Experts place great importance on encouraging people to consult their doctor or to go to licensed professionals if they want to take medication to help them lose weight.

“I’m very supportive of people wanting to improve their health through managing their weight,” Dr Jones says. “It’s a really great thing to do for your long-term health.

“You should first have a chat with your doctor and make sure this is something that you would be eligible and that there aren’t any risks for you personally. You can also talk to them about who can support you both behaviourally and in accessing a reimbursed prescription, if you are worried about the cost.”

Dr Jones agrees and adds: “If used correctly, there’s no shame [in taking weight loss medication]. There’s no reason to feel like you’re cheating.

“It’s always about the credibility of who you’re speaking to or who you’re requesting the medication from. Are they trained in it? Are they allowed to legally prescribe it? As long as you’re being assessed correctly, then there’s no reason why you can’t have some fantastic results.”

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