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Many Drugs, Vaccines in Short Supply

By
WebMD Health News

April 26, 2002 -- There's a drug shortage in this country -- a crisis that involves children's vaccines and several commonly used prescription drugs.

In pharmacies, people are putting their names on waiting lists for several medications, including one for hepatitis C and another for rheumatoid arthritis.

Pediatricians are facing shortages of steroids used to treat premature infants with immature lung development.

Vaccines that infants and toddlers need -- against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, pneumococcus, and the diphtheria-tetanus vaccine -- are also in short supply. In some regions of the U.S., the problem is getting grim.

"In Wisconsin, pediatricians are really having difficulty finding enough vaccines to do the minimal recommended schedule," says Keith Powell, MD, a member of the Infectious Disease Committee for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Powell is chairman of pediatrics at Children's Hospital Medical Center of Akron, Ohio.

Powell's committee is in charge of writing or revising the recommended schedule of vaccinations that pediatricians follow when advising parents. They've already altered the schedule for chickenpox because of the shortage. Instead of requiring that infants have the vaccine between 12 and 18 months, 24 months is now the new rule.

Prevnar Supply Most Worrisome

Doctors are most worried about shortages of Prevnar, the childhood vaccine that protects against pneumonia, meningitis, and ear infection, Powell tells WebMD.

"Basically, pediatricians have asked parents to come back when the vaccines are available," he says. "It means parents can't get children vaccinated on regular visits. They have to make a special appointment just for the vaccines. That's extremely difficult for many parents."

In fact, studies have shown that children who aren't immunized on time are less likely to fully complete their series of shots, Powell says.

"Parents are frustrated," Powell tells WebMD. "They want to protect their children. The vast majority of people -- well over 90% of parents -- want to have their children protected and they are frustrated at being told, 'We don't have the vaccine, you have to wait.'"

"There's a lot of frustration," says Joseph Deffenbaugh, MPH, RPH, a spokesman for the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists. "We've been dealing with shortages for the last five years, but it's gotten really serious in the last two years. It's created some real difficulties in physicians being able to manage their patients."

The shortages have also caused delays in diagnostic procedures and elective surgeries, he says.

Alternatives Aren't Always Best

For many drugs -- but not all -- there are alternative drugs that can be used. However, "that creates its own problems because of differences in potency and adverse side effects," Deffenbaugh says. "In some cases, the alternatives may not be as effective or as safe for the patient. So it's not optimal therapy. In some cases, there aren't any alternatives."

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