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Wits study finds that obesity medication works, although few can afford it

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In the 2016 South African Demographic and Health Survey, it was reported that 41% of women and 11% of men over the age of 15 were classified as "obese" - a somewhat imprecise but still useful definition of being overweight at a population level - and this number is on the rise.

While proper nutrition and exercise are crucial for good health, sustainable weight loss is rarely achieved through these means alone. The body's weight is regulated like a thermostat, with a "set point" that the body strives to maintain and will often increase through heightened hunger signals. Sadly, bariatric surgery and expensive medications are currently the only reliable methods for achieving sustained weight loss.

The research team at Wits prescribed these medications to patients under the supervision of an experienced endocrinologist. These medications work by suppressing appetite and tricking the body's "set point." They come in both oral and injectable forms and may need to be taken daily or weekly, depending on availability and affordability. Although minor side effects may occur, every patient who tolerated the medication experienced significant weight loss. Clinical trial reports showed weight loss ranging from 7% to as much as 20% in just over a year. Unfortunately, weight tends to return if medication is stopped, much like with high blood pressure and diabetes medications, meaning that people with obesity may need to take these drugs indefinitely.

Obesity is a condition affecting millions of South Africans and is often stigmatized and subject to prejudice. While a complex therapy method exists, it is unjustifiably unaffordable, with medical aids often refusing to cover it. Activist organizations, such as the HEALA coalition and Wits' Center for Health Economics and Decision Science (PRICELESS-SA), are fighting against the sugar and food industries, who resist labeling their products. However, people with obesity are left with few options unless they have significant financial resources and a knowledgeable doctor.

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