Ozempic-like drugs face lawsuits for paralyzed stomachs in Georgia

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

Less than a month after Zina Eddy went on Rybelsus — a drug related to Ozempic — she started having pain in her stomach, she recalled, and all kinds of digestive troubles. A couple of years later, it’s still happening she says, even though she went off the drug.

Eddy, 61, was diagnosed with gastroparesis, a paralyzed stomach, and she blames the Rybelsus. During a recent interview she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she hasn’t had a bowel movement in nearly three weeks. She has joined thousands of patients who are suing the drug companies that make that type of blockbuster weight loss and diabetes drugs, called GLP-1 receptor agonists. The GLP-1 drugs include Ozempic, Wegovy, Rybelsus, Mounjaro and others.

Her lawyer, Andrew Van Arsdale, said the manufacturer knew or should have known about the danger of gastroparesis before Eddy took it, but didn’t include it in the drug’s warning.

Van Arsdale said Eddy is one of some 2,000 patients that his firm has signed up to represent on the issue, and that 10% of their conditions may be permanent. Most have not actually filed an individual lawsuit yet. Eddy’s and other claims handled by Van Arsdale’s firm have been consolidated in a federal court in Pennsylvania, but the consolidated case might be moved. The suit names drug makers Novo-Nordisk and Eli Lilly.

“The folks that we are representing, that have contacted us and explained what had happened to them, say, unequivocally, ‘I would never have taken this drug, had I known it could cause this,’” Van Arsdale said. “And under the law, the manufacturers of these products are required to do that. And they’re not doing a good enough job of it.”

“My life has been turned upside down,” Eddy said.

A key question is, did the drugs do it? Gastroparesis, the paralysis of the stomach, occurs in perhaps 1.8% of all people, studies have estimated. And the patients whose doctors put them on the drugs are often already sick or disabled, as Eddy was with rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes.

The manufacturer of Rybelsus, Novo-Nordisk, pushed back at the lawsuits, saying that they were without merit.

“Patient safety is our top priority,” the company said in a written statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It noted that some GLP-1 drugs have been on the market for more than a decade and all were studied and had been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA also approved the products’ labels, including lists of “known risks and benefits,” the statement said.

“Novo Nordisk stands behind the safety and efficacy of all of our GLP-1 medicines when they are used as indicated and when they are taken under the care of a licensed health care professional,” the statement said.

Eli Lilly did not respond to a request for a comment before deadline.

The GLP-1 drugs are designed to make the brain think the body has already eaten, and they can naturally slow down digestion. Digestive problems like abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea and constipation are known possible side effects of GLP-1 drugs. A Harvard Medical School public advice page suggests ways to manage them, like eating crackers or mint to curb nausea, or for diarrhea, drinking lots of water and avoiding fiber and dairy until symptoms go away.

The problem, say the lawsuits, is such terms don’t begin to describe the severity of what some patients actually experience.

The condition of a paralyzed stomach has affected different patients in different ways, but they describe it as life-changing.

Patients interviewed by the AJC described months or years of being periodically immobilized by pain or diarrhea for days, long after they stopped taking the drugs. In a spell of diarrhea they don’t have less control over their bowels, they say, they have almost no control. When Eddy gets together with family soon for her grandson’s 21st birthday, she said she won’t eat. The last time she ate at a family gathering, she had an accident among extended family as she tried and failed to make it to the bathroom.

The bloating, she said, is like being seven months pregnant. The pain makes her sweat.

Olen Wiggins, a pastor at a small church in Carroll County and former Ozempic patient, said he suffers less often than Eddy. He said a couple times a month he’ll be glued to his bathroom for a day, starting with cramps. He has had to call off church at least twice, he said, with his wife calling the members to explain. “It’s kind of embarrassing to me, being the pastor and not being able to be there,” he said. “But what can you do?”

“I wouldn’t recommend that (drug) to nobody because of what it’s done to me,” he said.

Van Arsdale said he’s got medical experts who will link the stomach problems to the drugs. And one thing he hopes is that pharmaceutical companies like Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly will change their labeling.

“Look, you know, I do think that this is a very incredible drug and I think it can help a lot of things including the health risks that come with obesity,” Van Arsdale said. But the label doesn’t go far enough, he said.

“The amount of marketing dollars that these drug companies are pumping into direct consumer advertising is enormous,” Van Arsdale said. “And it’s obviously incredibly effective as roughly 3% of the US population is on these drugs. My ask to these defendants would be, why not take some of those marketing dollars that you’re pumping into television, social media advertising, and continue to deploy resources to research these side effects at a much greater level, in order to adequately warn consumers?”