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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

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What Are Compounding Pharmacies?

Meningitis Outbreak From Compounded Drug Raises Questions Over Pharmacies
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 10, 2012 -- How did a single pharmacy in Massachusetts put 13,000 people in 23 states at risk of deadly fungal meningitis?

New England Compounding Center (NECC) is a compounding pharmacy. It has now recalled the 2,410 different drugs it sold in all 50 states. Fungal contamination of at least one product -- single-shot syringes filled with a steroid preparation -- is responsible for the meningitis outbreak.

This raises serious questions about compounding pharmacies, which make some 3% of drugs dispensed in the U.S.

What is a compounding pharmacy?

The traditional role of compounding pharmacies is to make drugs prescribed by doctors for specific patients with needs that can't be met by commercially available drugs, says Linda D. Bentley, JD, chair of the FDA practice group at the Boston offices of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky, and Popeo P.C.

Bentley offers two examples:

  • A young child may need a small, liquid dose of a drug made only in adult-dosage tablets.
  • A person may be allergic to one of the ingredients in the commercial version of a drug.

In such cases, a compounding pharmacy would make the proper dosage and form of the drug without any offending ingredients.

In recent years, the role of compounding pharmacies has expanded, says David Miller, RPh, CEO of the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists (IACP), the trade group representing the compounding industry.

"In the last two to three years there has been an upsurge in an old function of compounding pharmacies, to step in on a local basis to fulfill drug shortage issues," Miller says. "What we have seen is on a large scale, important drugs being in shortage and not for short periods as before. Now it's in the months-to-years range. So compounding pharmacies are being looked to on a larger scale as we try to address drug manufacturing problems."

How many compounding pharmacies are there?

According to the IACP, there are 56,000 community-based pharmacies in the U.S. About half of them directly serve local patients and doctors.

Some 7,500 compounding pharmacies specialize in what the IACP calls "advanced compounding services." Some 3,000 of these pharmacies make sterile products. The tainted steroid shots made by NECC were supposed to have been sterile.

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