Diabetes: challenges of access to insulin


Diabetes: Three dangerous myths that are hurting patients

As with many global healthcare issues, the challenges faced by diabetic people living through humanitarian crises are not inevitable. In fact, it’s often profit-driven policies that stand in the way of accessing treatment.

“I would only inject a little bit of the prescription so that we could reserve it for another day.”

This was life for Viola Makore, a young woman from Mutare in Zimbabwe, before she came to MSF for treatment for type 1 diabetes. Viola was diagnosed in 2014. Her body can’t make the insulin needed to get sugar from her bloodstream into cells for energy, so a daily insulin replacement is vital. Without insulin, Viola will become severely unwell within days, and possibly die.

Dying before diagnosis

Viola’s story is not unusual. Across sub-Saharan Africa and in many other places, children and adults diagnosed with diabetes often cannot afford to buy insulin and the other equipment needed to manage their condition and stay well and healthy. Many are simply dying before being diagnosed.

Just one dollar for the patent

The scientists who first discovered insulin in 1921 decided to sell the patent on their new discovery for just US$1 so that anyone who needed it could have it. But fast forward a century, and around one in every two people in the world who needs insulin today can’t get it because it’s either too expensive or unavailable, or both, risking serious complications and death. We are working with others to change this and bring down the price of insulin.

Cost vs price

The cost of producing insulin is much lower than the prices charged, which put this lifesaving medicine beyond the reach of many people in need.

Increasing access to treatment for people with diabetes

At the MSF Access Campaign, we are working to improve access to treatment for people living with diabetes, by advocating for:

  • Increased competition in the insulin market
  • Reduced cost of the diabetes treatment 'bundle'
  • WHO and national policies to support access to diabetes care

The push for insulin pens

As part of our work to help simplify treatment for people living with diabetes, MSF is using insulin pens to administer insulin for people with type 1 diabetes in some of our programmes. There are many clear advantages of using insulin pens for both patients and care providers, including better accuracy in administering insulin doses, less complex procedures, and a less painful experience for patients.

The price of insulin pens is currently much too high for individuals or governments in low- and middle- income countries, and MSF is working to bring down the price. 

How insulin pens improve patients' lives

MSF has transitioned all patients with type 1 diabetes in our clinics in Lebanon from vials to insulin pens. Here are stories from patients and staff about how the move has improved both medical outcomes and patients’ quality of life. More info on the benefits of insulin pens can be found here.

Three things to know about access to insulin


Webinar: Part 1 - Lowering the price of insulin everywhere: let’s make it a reality

On 14 May 2024, the MSF Access Campaign hosted a webinar busting the myth that analogue insulins and injection pen devices, which improve the quality of life of people living with diabetes, must be more expensive than currently available tools.


Part 2 - Access to GLP-1s (medicines like Ozempic) and SGLT-2s for people living with type 2 diabetes

On 15 May 2024, the MSF Access Campaign hosted a webinar on why we need newer medicines to treat people living with type 2 diabetes in low- and middle-income countries, and why people’s access to GLP-1s (eg, Ozempic) may be a major challenge.