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Diabetes patients hit by glucose monitor shortage

A woman infecting herself with insulin to treat type 1 diabetes Image copyright Getty Images

The company behind a blood sugar monitor that has changed the lives of thousands of diabetics has been forced to apologise after supplies ran short.

Pharmacies have been turning patients away as deliveries of healthcare firm Abbott's Freestyle Libre Sensor are delayed by two or three weeks.

Abbott has said it is working hard to fulfil all the orders, but gave no further explanation.

Diabetes.co.uk says almost 30,000 people in the UK use the device.

That amounts to about 1 in 10 of those with Type 1 diabetes.

Health fears

The sensor was described as life-saving when it was first offered to NHS patients in 2017.

Before the device came along, they had to prick their fingers multiple times a day in order to test their blood glucose levels and work out how much insulin they need.

Now they are worried about their health and the reliability of the company's supply chain.

They say their lives have become immeasurably harder because of the shortage.

Worldwide sales of the Freestyle Libre grew exponentially in 2019. There are more than two million users globally and Abbott's 2019 third-quarter results showed worldwide sales of the sensor raised $496m (£380m), an increase of 63.1% from 2018.

The company has capitalised on the growing digital diabetes market as patients try to find new and easier ways to manage their healthcare.

However, this is not the first time the company has been unable to fulfil orders. This time last year, users struggled to get hold of devices and at the time, this was blamed on exceptional demand for the sensors.

'Don't underestimate the impact'

Sarah, 42, from Northampton, has had Type 1 diabetes since she was 14.

She has been back on finger prick testing for a week and says it has made a difference to the stability of her condition. "My blood sugars have run higher and I'm at risk of overcompensating, which could cause dangerous lows."

She doesn't know when her local pharmacy will re-stock the sensors and said that Abbott shouldn't "underestimate the impact this has".

She warned that this delay is particularly worrying for parents with diabetic children, who use the sensors to check for dangerous highs and lows during the night.

Image caption Andrew is one of many Type 1 diabetics who are concerned

Andrew, 34, from West Sussex, is another Type 1 diabetic.

He says the sensor "is part of my prescription, part of my care package. It's like not supplying tablets".

With a lack of clear explanation about the delay from Abbott, users and their relatives have taken to social media to share their concerns.

What is the sensor?

A sticky patch sits on the upper arm holding a small needle, which continuously monitors blood sugar levels. It is linked to an app on a mobile phone, so the user always has a clear and precise picture of their glucose levels and can therefore inject the appropriate amount of insulin.

It is vital for Type 1 diabetics, whose bodies cannot produce their own insulin, that their blood sugars remain stable.

If glucose levels run high, they face long term issues including nerve damage, kidney failure and heart disease. If blood sugars run low, symptoms include shakiness, nausea and fatigue. If low blood sugar is not corrected, there is a risk of loss of consciousness and even death.

In a statement, Abbott said: "We are doing all we can to expedite shipments in an effort to minimise interruptions and we have temporarily closed our web shop during this time." This means NHS patients who want to buy the device privately cannot.

The advice from Natasha Marsland, senior clinical adviser at Diabetes UK, is for diabetics "to monitor blood glucose levels using their usual blood monitoring kits and test strips".

She also says the charity is in touch with Abbott and has "expressed concern" about the situation.

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