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Global Ozempic shortage affects First Nations communities

The global shortage of the diabetes medication Ozempic has diabetics like Eleanor Michael from Sipekne’katik worried about finding alternatives.

Ozempic has seen a skyrocketing global demand, in part due to prescriptions related to weight loss.

Michael, whose Mi’kmaw community is about 50 kilometres northwest of Halifax, was diagnosed with diabetes earlier this year and prescribed the drug but now she can’t fill her prescription.

“[Ozempic] was keeping my sugars down,” Michael said. 

She said she’s scared to try other medications, because arthritis medicine she also takes increases her blood sugar levels.  

First Nations people living on-reserve have rates of diabetes three to five times higher than non-Indigenous people in  Canada, according to the Government of Canada.

Ozempic medication box and injector
Ozempic boxes and injector. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

Michael said Ozempic was helping curb her appetite for unhealthy foods. She took a break in the summer for two weeks to see how her body would respond to the arthritis medication, but once her blood sugar climbed she went back on it.

She said she’ll continue to work with her pharmacist and doctor to come up with a game plan to maintain her health but also worries about putting on weight without Ozempic.

Cheryl Gehue, band councillor for Sipekne’katik and a diabetic herself, said Ozempic worked well to help her control her blood sugar levels.

An Indigenous woman with beaded earrings.
Cheryl Gehue is a diabetic and said she’s been without her prescription of Ozempic for two weeks. (Johanna Matthews)

Gehue said she ran out of Ozempic two weeks ago and although alternative drugs like Trulicity were offered, it wasn’t covered by the Non-Insured Health Benefits program that helps cover the cost of prescriptions for First Nations and Inuit patients. 

“There needs to be a strategy put in place for once [Ozempic] comes back on the market on how to roll it out within our First Nations communities,” said Gehue, 54.  

In an email, Health Canada said it was working closely with Novo Nordisk, the maker of Ozempic, to monitor supplies but shortages are expected to continue until March 31, 2024. 

Janet Gordon, COO of the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority, said she had a family member go months without filling their Ozempic prescription. 

A head shot of an Indigenous woman.
Janet Gordon, chief operating officer of Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority, said access to health care in isolated communities is always a challenge. (Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority)

Gordon said her organization serves over 30 First Nations communities in northern Ontario, many of which are isolated and struggle to keep health-care workers and a flow of prescription medication.

“It makes it harder for the continuity of care and we have seen that in diabetes care for sure,” said Gordon. 

She said they have to rely on public health nurses to teach diabetic education and if a patient requires dialysis they often have to leave their community.

Gordan said they have developed a regional strategy for diabetic care, to ensure people stay in community for culturally safe and integrated care but it lacks adequate funding to implement.

There are still barriers to healthy eating and lifestyle changes in First Nations communities such as poverty rates and food insecurity, said Sharon Rudderham, director of health transformation for Tajikeimɨk, a Mi’kmaw health organization, but she encourages people to keep trying. 

“People can just try their best and look at alternatives that might be more affordable,” said Rudderham.

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