A shortage of a generic epilepsy drug has some Canadian patients scrambling to find alternative treatment, and the B.C. Pharmacy Association says such shortages are on the rise in Canada.

Many people with epilepsy rely on a drug called valproic acid to control their seizures. So many people need it, it's on the World Health Organization's list of essential medicines, meaning it's meant to be "available within functioning health systems, at all times, in adequate amounts."

Derek Desrosiers, the B.C. Pharmacy Association's director of pharmacy practice support, says some pharmacies are out of the drug, but it still should be attainable in Canada.

"We're not at an ultra-critical level yet in terms of care," he told On The Coast guest host Chris Brown. "We're hopeful product will come back into supply before we get there."

Desrosiers says patients using valproic acid should be okay — he's hopeful the product will be more plentiful within a few weeks.

Many reasons for shortages

Desrosiers says shortages are happening for many reasons, including issues with quality control or the supply chain, or even a disaster like a recent fire that struck a production facility in Quebec.

"Many pharmaceutical companies certainly do keep a number of weeks or months of inventory on hand," he said. "Sometimes they can predict these things and other times they can't."

Desrosiers also says economics are a factor as well, as some provinces have significantly lowered the price of generic drugs.

"There's a number of generic companies who sometimes say, 'Sorry, but I can't sell my drug at that low a price and continue to be competitive or profitable,'" he said. "So they withdraw their product from the market."

Possible workarounds when a shortage happens are changing the drug's formulation or switching to a different drug in the same family — which Desrosiers says might not be possible for valproic acid because there are few alternatives.

Still, Desrosiers says he's confident the current stocks can weather the shortage, and he advises users of valproic acid not to hoard medicine and talk to their pharmacist if they have concerns.


To hear the full story, click the audio labelled: Epilepsy drug shortage part of a growing problem, B.C. Pharmacy Association says