Key cancer drug supply precarious

Critical cancer drugs are in short supply, but the federal government isn't doing enough to remedy the situation, medical experts say.
Federal government isn't doing enough to remedy shortage: experts 2:55

Critical cancer drugs are in short supply, but the federal government isn't doing enough to remedy the situation, medical experts say.

Cancer doctors and hospital pharmacists across the country are reporting spot shortages of drugs that are recommended treatment and in some cases are the only option.

Dr. Peter Ellis says Health Canada needs to do more to prevent shortages of key cancer drugs. ((CBC))

In an email to CBC News, Health Canada said it recognizes the impact that shortages can have on patients and people who care for them, but that "Industry is responsible for understanding the supply needs of their products." 

Health Canada's response isn't enough, said Michael McBane, national co-ordinator for the Canadian Health Coalition in Ottawa.

"I think it points to a bigger problem on relying on the market to meet medical needs," McBane said Friday.

Essential medicines should not be subject to the "whims of supply and demand," he added.

Dr. Peter Ellis, a medical oncologist at the Juravinski Cancer Centre in Hamilton, agrees Health Canada needs to play a bigger role.

"I think the only way that this can be prevented from happening would be increased government regulation," Elllis said.

Hospitals have been caught unawares by the drug shortages, and are asking for a warning system. ((CBC))

In Canada, drug companies are not required to report impending shortages. Hospitals are often caught by surprise and have to scramble to ration drugs to cope with interruptions in supply.

"Vincristine could be a big problem because it's very often used … to treat non-Hodgkin's lymphoma," said Kathy Vu, a clinical pharmacy practitioner at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto. "We can potentially cure a patient and there isn't another protocol that we can use. This is first-line treatment." 

Doctors and pharmacists are therefore calling for an early warning system, such as a centralized database to track drug supply, to give them time to prepare before a drug runs out.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has a website to help anyone find out if a drug is in short supply and when it is expected to become more available.

"We don't have that in Canada," said Jeff Morrison, director of government relations and public affairs at the Canadian Pharmacists Association. "We're actually trying now to work with manufacturers to create that."

With files from CBC's Kelly Crowe, Amina Zafar and The Canadian Press