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Are anti-obesity drugs essential medicine? WHO to decide

The medicine was originally intended to treat diabetes, but advisers to the World Health Organization say it can help curb obesity.
Are anti-obesity drugs essential medicine? WHO to decide
Posted at 12:09 PM, Mar 30, 2023

The World Health Organization will soon decide whether to include an obesity medication on the Essential Medicines List. 

Liraglutide was originally developed to treat diabetes but has since been approved in the U.S. to treat obesity. Its makers claimed the drug caused at least a 5% reduction in body weight in 3 out of 5 patients. 

A more powerful version of the drug, semaglutide, was approved in 2021 by the Food and Drug Administration for weight loss. In a large study, the FDA said participants lost an average of 12.4% of their initial body weight compared to those on placebo. The study consisted of adults without diabetes. 

The FDA said the drugs work by targeting areas of the brain that regulate appetite and food intake. 

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“At present, there are no medications included in the EML that specifically target weight loss for the ongoing global burden of obesity,” researchers wrote. The WHO has described the global burden of obesity, and since 2016, 39% of adults over the age of 18 were overweight, with 13% of adults considered to be obese. Researchers added: “At this time, the EML includes mineral supplements for nutritional deficiencies yet it is also described that most of the population live in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight. The WHO even state that obesity is preventable however the discrepancy is certainly highlighted when the EML does not include any medications to treat this chronic condition.”

The World Health Organization’s EML is updated every two years and includes 1,188 recommendations for 591 medicines and 124 therapeutic equivalents. 

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“The eEML combines detailed medicine information data with comprehensive evaluation of benefits, harms and costs information,” the WHO said. “Most importantly, the eEML provides the data related to the status of a medicine as an essential medicine. Because of its well-defined scope, identifying those medicines that everyone should have access to at all times, and that all governments should ensure are available – and affordable – to their populations, the eEML provides a blueprint on which countries can base their own national lists. It is a key tool for achieving universal health coverage.”

The revised list will be considered April 24-28 at a conference at WHO headquarters in Geneva.