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News & Trends - Pharmaceuticals

First obesity analysis reveals shocking discrepancies in government funding, despite significant disease burden

Health Industry Hub | April 8, 2024 |

Pharma News: Overweight and obesity stand as the second leading risk factors for mortality and non-communicable diseases in Australia. The insufficient allocation of Australian Government funds towards obesity prevention hampers efforts to foster healthy behaviours and cut healthcare expenses, assert the authors of a research paper.

Obesity contributes to 8.4% of Australia’s overall disease burden, placing the country among those with the highest obesity rates globally. Addressing this issue necessitates increased funding for prevention, reimbursement for innovative therapies, and equitable access to bariatric surgery.

Obesity costs the Australian community $11.8 billion in 2018 and if nothing is done, it will cost an estimated $87.7 billion by 2032. While the Australian Federal Government has introduced the National Obesity Strategy 2022–2032, a 10-year plan aimed at combating obesity, its effectiveness is hindered by insufficient funding allocated for implementation.

Researchers from Deakin University conducted an analysis of the funding landscape for obesity prevention for the first time. Merely 0.1% of the Federal Government’s health budget was dedicated to obesity prevention between 2013 and 2022. Moreover, allocations for obesity prevention research from the three largest Federally funded research bodies – the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), Australian Research Council (ARC), and Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) – were alarmingly low, constituting 1.1%, 0.2%, and 0.8% of their total funding, respectively.

Over the span of ten years, approximately A$778 million was dispersed across 186 obesity prevention initiatives. The authors also noted significant fluctuations in funding levels, with two years (2015 and 2020) witnessing zero allocations for obesity prevention in Federal Government health budgets.

Lead author Michelle Tran, a health economist and research fellow at Deakin University, expressed deep concern over the inadequate government expenditure on obesity prevention, emphasising the significant benefits that could be realised by addressing the factors that contribute to obesity.

“Australia has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world, costing us billions of dollars each year. Funding cost-effective prevention strategies would be an excellent investment not only in the health of Australians, but it could also save billions in the healthcare and other costs of preventable obesity-related diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer,” stated Ms Tran.

Furthermore, there is a pressing need for increased investment in subsidising obesity prescription medicines. It’s concerning that currently, there is not a single listing on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) for obesity therapies.

GLP-1 receptor agonists like Lilly’s Mounjaro (tirzepatide) and Novo Nordisk’s Wegovy (semaglutide) have received approval from the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) but are not yet reimbursed. Notably, Wegovy has become the first weight loss medication for reducing the risk of cardiovascular death, heart attack, and stroke in individuals with cardiovascular disease and obesity.

Alarming data underscores the stark disparity in bariatric surgery distribution, with more than 90% of procedures being conducted in the private sector. This glaring discrepancy underscores the need for equitable funding and capacity allocation between the public and private hospitals. Dr Calista Spiro, a bariatric surgeon from Canberra, emphasised the critical importance of addressing this disparity in access, especially considering that disadvantaged socio-economic populations bear the heaviest burden of obesity and frequently depend solely on public healthcare services.

Research presented at Digestive Disease Week (DDW) further solidifies the importance of bariatric surgery in the fight against obesity-related complications. The study revealed a 50% reduction in the incidence of newly diagnosed cancer in patients who underwent bariatric surgery. Over a decade, the cumulative prevalence of obesity-related cancers was just 4% in the surgery group compared to 8.9% in the control group. Statistically significant reductions were observed in breast, colon, liver, and ovarian cancers among the surgery group.

Deakin University researchers are calling for “sufficient and sustained Federal Government funding towards obesity prevention research and implementation to reduce chronic disease risks and improve the health of the population.”

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