Our beloved Mzansi is grappling with a shortage of vital diabetes devices and insulin pens, and the culprit is as surprising as it is frustrating: the booming demand for weight-loss drugs.

Novo Nordisk, the Danish pharmaceutical giant that has been supplying South Africa with insulin pens for over a decade, decided not to renew its contract last month, leaving our public health system scrambling. No other company has stepped up to bid for the 14 million pens needed over the next three years. Instead, Novo Nordisk is prioritising its more lucrative weight-loss drugs, Ozempic and Wegovy, which use similar delivery devices.

Now, let’s talk about those weight-loss drugs for a moment. You might have heard of Ozempic and Wegovy, especially if you follow the latest celebrity trends. These drugs are flying off the shelves faster than a Black Friday sale, thanks to their appetite-suppressing magic. But here’s the kicker: a month’s supply of Ozempic in the U.S. costs about $1,000, compared to around $2 per insulin pen. So, it’s no wonder Novo Nordisk is focusing on the more profitable option.

Celebrities, of course, are leading the charge in this weight-loss frenzy. Social media is abuzz with tales of stars shedding pounds thanks to these diabetes medications. Khloé Kardashian and Oprah Winfrey are among the many A-listers accused of dabbling with these ‘miracle’ drugs. But while they flaunt their slimmer physiques, diabetes patients are left scrambling for alternatives. 

Diabetes patients are now tasked with having to measure their insulin dosages themselves, multiple times a day, instead of simply clicking a pen, increasing the risk of an overdose or underdose significantly. Insulin pens are preferred for their ease of use and precision. 

The National Department of Health (NDoH) has instructed clinicians to reserve the remaining pen stock for those who will struggle most with vials and syringes, such as small children, the elderly, and the visually impaired. 

The NDoH is working on securing alternative supplies, but this takes time. Diabetes is a leading cause of death in South Africa, and managing it effectively is crucial.

In the battle between waistlines and well-being, South Africa’s insulin pen shortage should remind us that health should always trump trends.