Alberta pharmacists left scrambling to replace heart drugs amid shortages

Some Alberta pharmacists say they're left scrambling to replace their patients's high blood pressure and heart medications after a recall this week due to the country's chronic drug shortages.

'We don't have options anymore. We take what we get,' pharmacist Greg Bueckert says

Some Alberta pharmacists say they're scrambling to replace their patients' high blood pressure and heart medication after a recall on Tuesday. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Some Alberta pharmacists say chronic drug shortages in Canada are making it harder to replace their patients' heart medications following a massive recall this week.

Health Canada has recalled certain medications that may contain a potential carcinogen, known as the impurity N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), which can cause cancer with long-term exposure.

Chinese company Zhejiang Huahai Pharmaceuticals supplied the drugs containing valsartan, which is commonly used to treat high blood pressure and prevent heart attacks and stroke.

But the regulator said the particular valsartan used in these recalled medications may contain the carcinogen.

"You know, quite shocked," pharmacist Greg Bueckert said about the announcement. "We do get notices but nothing to this degree where they're removing mass amounts of an essential medication from the marketplace."

Health Canada urges patients to stay on their medications but to check with their doctors and pharmacists right away about switching prescriptions.

'No options anymore' 

Bueckert owns Greg's Remedy RX in Medicine Hat, Alta., and has been trying to contact everyone his pharmacy has ever prescribed the recalled drugs. He's also consulted a cardiologist to find substitutes.

But he said ongoing drug shortages in Canada make it hard to find a viable — and available — replacement.

"We don't have options anymore. We take what we get," Buecket said. "That's sad because then you've got an instance like this where, instead of being able to say, 'Hey, I'm not going to give you this brand, we'll just go to the other one,' there's no options anymore. You have no alternatives."

Back in 2012, Health Canada started a steering committee with the provinces to address the drug shortage problem, yet pharmacists have spoken out, saying the problem is getting worse. Instead, they say they're left trying to find drugs in short supply and even sending patients back to physicians for reassessment.

More than three-quarters of drug supply shortages in Canada are for generic drugs, a study released last month by C.D. Howe Institute found.

"The recalls say, 'Make sure they don't stop taking their medication,' but currently due to drug shortages, there is no valsartan that's available at this time from the wholesalers," said pharmacist Rob Heaton, who owns Cambrian Pharmacy in Calgary.

"So we're going to have to... find some very quickly or again, get a hold of physicians to have them changed."

Last year, the federal government started requiring drug companies publicly report shortages. Since then, roughly 4,400 actual and anticipated shortages have been reported, according to Health Canada.

The registry currently notes multiple shortages, including an actual shortage of a high blood pressure and heart medication.

The health authority notes on its website that drug shortages may be caused due to issues supplying an ingredient, voluntary recalls, manufacturing issues, sole-source contracts or economic decisions, such as stopping production due to lack of financial return.

With files from Jennifer Lee.