Medication shortages worry parents, pharmacists

While Health Canada officials insist more doses of children’s painkillers and fever medication will be available soon, pharmacists in Westman say there’s no end in sight to the medication shortage.

Deputy Minister Stephen Lucas and several other senior Health Canada officials with responsibility for pharmaceutical policy were summoned to the House of Commons health committee Tuesday to explain why Canadian hospitals and parents of sick children haven’t been able to find children’s Tylenol and Advil anywhere recently.

The shortage began last spring, but an early appearance of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus in the summer, along with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, worsened the situation. Worried parents began stockpiling the medication, which pharmacist Mansi Patel said has not helped the situation.

“As people heard about the shortage, they wanted to keep it on hand,” said Patel, who works at I.D.A. Virden Drugs in Virden.

Manufacturers initially told the government in the spring they could address a “tightening” in supply by increasing production, said Health Canada’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Supriya Sharma. But by August, they let Health Canada know that plan was failing.

After nearly two months of discussions between governments and manufacturers, Health Canada arranged to import doses from the United States and Australia.

The first U.S. shipment is already on the ground.

Medication coming in from both countries is giving Leslie Palmer, a pharmacist at Hasselfield Drugs in Deloraine, some hope that things might get better soon.

“It’s great, because it’s been an ongoing issue for the past several months,” Palmer said.

When Vancouver Kingsway NDP MP Don Davies asked how many additional doses are coming and where they are going, Linsey Hollett, the director of health product compliance for Health Canada, said the answer was confidential and refused to divulge an answer.

“Unfortunately, I’m not able to share the exact quantities,” she said.

Distribution is being prioritized for hospitals, she said, but wouldn’t reveal which ones, only that information provided by children’s hospitals is being used to determine the need.

Hollett later clarified that Health Canada was trying to convince the manufacturers to make the information public and hoped that would happen soon.

Davies was incensed and Conservative MP Stephen Ellis, who represents Cumberland–Colchester in Nova Scotia, called the secrecy “unconscionable.”

Lucas repeatedly told MPs that drug shortages are not unusual, are often dealt with before anyone in the public realizes there is a problem and are not unique to Canada.

It’s a situation that is causing frustration for both parents and pharmacists across Westman, Palmer said. Thankfully, her pharmacy has been able to meet the needs of the community “thus far,” but their supplies of Tylenol and Advil are running extremely low.

“I would … love more clarity as to why [the shortage] hasn’t been rectified,” Palmer said.

The German Pharmacists Association said in mid-September that China’s ongoing COVID-19 lockdowns were affecting port exports, and that the heavy reliance on China and other Asian countries to make the active ingredients in drugs such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen meant that global supply-chain issues were having an impact.

While caregivers, parents and pharmacists wait for the situation to improve, Palmer said there are other options. Some pharmacies are making suspensions of acetaminophen and ibuprofen, she said.

“It does have a much shorter expiration date, so it’s not something you can go out and buy in advance. But it does help fill the gaps, at least.”

In the meantime, Palmer is encouraging people to reach out to their local pharmacy to see what supplies they have available and to ask any questions they might have about their children’s health.

In a press conference held by physicians’ advocacy group Doctors Manitoba to address escalating respiratory virus-related illness in the province, pediatrician Dr. William Li said his “heart goes out” to parents over the lack of fever and pain-reducing drugs available to their children.

“Tylenol [and Advil] are one of the few things we can [use] to help our children feel better. The reality, though, is that [these drugs] help decrease fever and pain temporarily. They don’t actually help the child get better any quicker.”

Li advised parents to ensure that fevered children are kept in cooler rooms, and that if children are showing signs of dehydration or are unable to drink or urinate, or show an increase in breathing difficulty, it’s time to head to the emergency room or reach out to their family doctor.

Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun