Peak diabetes body warns of stockpiling insulin, as people with diabetes respond by sharing supplies with those in need

Diabetic retinopathy occurs when the tiny blood vessels inside the retina at the back of the eye are damaged as a result of diabetes. Source: Pixabay

Diabetes Australia has asked followers on social media not to bulk buy their medication. This followed a flurry of concerned posts on Facebook groups about a lack of supply in local pharmacies.

The COVID-19 panic buying phenomenon has transitioned from empty supermarkets to delays on insulin and other medical supplies in pharmacies. It prompted Diabetes Australia to send out a message on their Facebook page, warning people with diabetes to not stockpile on insulin and other medical supplies in fear of coronavirus-related shutdowns. 

Professor Greg Johnson, the CEO of Diabetes Australia, says there are no supply problems, and stressed to those with insulin-dependent diabetes to only get their normal amounts of medicine. 

“We've double checked this with the companies who make insulin and bring it to Australia and with the government and the regulators and there is no supply problem,” he told The Feed

“However, what we are seeing is a surge in orders for insulin and other things around the country. And those surge in orders means that locally we can get problems and we are seeing those problems all over the country.”

The panic surrounding access to insulin rose after the government announced restrictions on medicinal supplies, limiting pharmacies to dispensing no more than a month's worth of prescription medication. Prof Johnson says the confusion felt by people with diabetes is understandable but says the announcement shouldn’t impact insulin scripts that can range from three to five months of supply. 

“We're in the process of talking with the pharmacy guild and pharmacists all over Australia to make sure that the way this is done doesn't adversely affect people using insulin, and it shouldn't,” he said. 

“The announcement about one month's supply relates to lots and lots of medicines. And it's been done just again to help make sure that we don't get into more trouble and that we don't have panic buying and people stocking up.”

The news shouldn’t affect insulin, and Prof Johnson says insulin purchasing habits should just continue as normal. He says people should get their normal supply, their normal amount.

“If they normally get five vials of insulin on a prescription that's the amount they should get,” he said.

“I don’t think I’ve ever waited longer than one day to get any of my supplies”

Gerald has had type 1 diabetes for over 20 years, and with the heightened risks associated with the chronic illness to COVID-19, he’s been self isolating for the last week. To cut down interactions, he’s been leaving for the pharmacy late at night to pick up his insulin. 

He dropped off his script last Thursday, and was told his insulin would be ready the following day. When he went late the next evening it still hadn’t arrived. It wasn’t until three days later, on Sunday night, that he would receive his insulin. 

“It was a three day wait. I've been diabetic for 26 years, and I don't think I've ever waited longer than one day to get any of my supplies,” he told The Feed.

“I used to leave it to the last minute because it was never an issue. There are people who ride that line pretty thin where it's like ‘I've got two days left to go drop that script off’.” 

Gerald quickly began seeing posts on diabetes Facebook groups about people experiencing insulin shortages. Despite his anxiety about leaving the house, after stocking up on his usual amount of insulin he offered some of his own.

“A few people have posted in a couple of Facebook groups that I'm in and they've been struggling also to get insulin,” he said.

“I offered up some of mine to a person in a group who lived just down the road from me, I was gonna go drop it off into their letterbox that's still staying pretty isolated.

“Usually when I get a script filed, it's about four to five months worth insulin, certainly enough that you can spare a couple.”

“In normal circumstances, health professionals would never recommend sharing medication”

The sharing of insulin prescriptions comes with huge risks, according to Dr Hani Al-Salami, a registered pharmacist and academic at Curtin University, specialising in diabetes therapeutics. 

“In normal circumstances, health professionals would never recommend sharing medication,” he told The Feed.

“The danger is because it can contaminate the vial if you're sharing one, depending on how you share it. You're using someone else's dose, so there's a lot of risks.”

Dr Al-Salami says we are now in unprecedented times, referring to the coronavirus pandemic, adding that if patients don't get their insulin dose they risk their health and well being. 

“If it is a life or death situation, then I will be more inclined to say, it is better than not having it,” he said. 

“So it's an absolute extreme case scenario where there are no absolutely, no other solutions, no supply whatsoever. These are the kinds of circumstances that you may consider borrowing. 

“Of course, I would always get health professionals involved in that process to ensure that what you are getting is correct.”

Dr Al-Salami says types of insulin give different “release profiles”. Doctors not only prescribe people with diabetes a specific dose, but with two different kinds of insulin: slow acting and fast acting. 

He uses the example of Lantus, a slow acting insulin. Dr Al-Salami says it spreads over time, and is usually taken at night before bed. Fast acting insulin, by contrast, is taken immediately before a meal.  

“If you mix them up, then the control of your blood sugar will change. So it's not a matter of I'm just going to use that and get the same dose, it doesn't work like that,” he said.

“Insulin is specific to the times that you're meant to take it. So the simple answer is you can’t  just throw up the different types of insulin and expect the same results.” 

“It's one of those things where as someone living with a chronic health condition, it's not like toilet paper where if you don't have it, you're not going to die”

Letty noticed she was running out of her insulin, so she headed down to her local pharmacy in Collingwood. 

“I normally do that when I'm down to like less than one box of each, which I just happened to be, sort of last week,” she told The Feed

There was a bit of confusion, she was told they needed to order it because they weren’t keeping the insulin onsite. Letty says previously she’s been able to walk in, and get it “on the spot.” The anxiety surrounding the coronavirus started to creep in. 

“There have been times where [the chemist] had one of the items in stock, and for the other one they've had to order in and usually I get it the next day, and I never follow up or call,” she said. 

Letty wasn’t worried because she says it was just business as usual, they are probably just waiting for the delivery.

“This time around I called the chemist every day, because I was just really scared the situation would change tomorrow and maybe they wouldn't give me my insulin or my scripts would get lost,” she said.

It took her three days to eventually receive her insulin but the uncertainty of government announcements only made things worse. She says no one knows what decisions are going to be made in the next few hours, the next 24 hours or the next week.

“I only had about two weeks left of supplies and it was very uncomfortable. I've got to say as soon as I got it, it was just a huge relief.”

Letty also noticed posts on the Facebook groups she’s in, people sharing concerns of a lack of insulin, and asking for help. She says being in Metropolitan Melbourne, she’s lucky because her delay meant three days. 

“I saw a post from someone who identified as an elderly type 1 diabetic, and that was a few days ago. She said she had a lot of trouble accessing the needles that go on top of the pens,” she said.

“So I offered to pick some up for her and I could take them over to her house.”

The elderly woman with diabetes decided to not take up Letty’s offer but thanked her for concern. But the acts of kindness in the small diabetes Facebook community groups eases Letty’s anxieties, because the thought of not being able to access insulin frightens her.

Despite what she says have been “awful things” we’ve seen on social media, the act of sharing something as essential as insulin helps her remember people are looking out for one another.

“I think it's one of those things where as someone living with a chronic health condition, it's not like toilet paper where if you don't have it, you're not going to die,” she said.

If you have concerns about your insulin supply. You can call the NDSS Helpline on 1800 637 700.

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