EpiPen shortage frightens Albertans with life-threatening allergies

Pfizer Canada, the only supplier of epinephrine auto-injectors in the country, says it has been struggling with manufacturing delays all year and limited shipments won't resume until the end of August.

'This is not an option. This is life or death'

The EpiPen supplier Pfizer Canada was plagued by manufacturing delays for months. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

Albertans with life-threatening allergies are worried about a shortage of EpiPens after Pfizer Canada, which has been dealing with manufacturing delays all year, announced shipments won't resume until the end of August.

Even when they do resume, the only supplier of epinephrine auto-injectors to Canada says supplies will be limited.

"This is not an option. This is life or death," said Susan Field, who suffers from several life-threatening food allergies along with her 15-year-old son.

Field, who lives in Edmonton, says they usually have five EpiPens on hand but they're now down to just one each.

"[It's] terrifying," said Field. "It's been hit and miss…I haven't been able to find any in the last three months," she said.

Doctors warn against stockpiling

Doctors are urging patients to hold on to expired ​EpiPens, saying using an old one is better than no treatment at all.

"If somebody were having an anaphylactic reaction and all they had was an expired EpiPen, they should use it. That would be very important," said Dr. Joel Doctor, a Calgary-based allergy specialist.

Calgary allergy specialist Dr. Joel Doctor is urging patients to be extra vigilant in avoiding allergy triggers while the shortage lasts. He says if all you have is an expired EpiPen, use it. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

According to Doctor, while patients with anaphylactic allergies should always be vigilant, they need to take extra care to avoid their allergy triggers while their life-saving treatment is in short supply.

And he hopes people will limit how many EpiPens they order while the shortage lasts.

"The key thing is, have one EpiPen and use it if it's really necessary…The idea of having two and three EpiPens is far less important than having one and using it when appropriate." 

Shelves are bare

Pharmacies have been struggling to keep shelves stocked with EpiPens for months. 

"I think it's very concerning," said Rob Heaton, pharmacist and co-owner of Calgary's Cambrian Pharmacy. "We are out and haven't been able to get any new supply." 

According to Heaton, while there are limited supplies of the EpiPen Junior, it is only intended for kids between 33 and 66 pounds. 

That means many elementary school aged children must rely on full dose EpiPens.

Demand surges during back-to-school

The national advocacy group, Food Allergy Canada, is worried the timing of the shortage could make matters worse, as parents will be preparing back-to-school supplies for their children. 

"We've moved in a situation from inconvenience to concern," said executive director Jennifer Gerdts, who has been watching the supply problems since the start of this year and is hearing from people across the country who cannot find EpiPens.

 "We expect to hear from more people because this is the time they go out to renew."

She's hoping schools will relax any requirements they have that EpiPens are kept on-site, since children may only have one available to them.

Calls for change

According to Food Allergy Canada, the problem is — while there are other suppliers world-wide — there is only one supplier of the epinephrine auto-injector in Canada.

The group is calling on Health Canada, provincial governments and industry to improve access for Canadians.

"Canada and Australia are the only markets that have one source of supply," said Gerdts. "We need to solve the bigger issue around having a second and third supplier in the marketplace."

That change can't come soon enough for Susan Field, who worries about the safety of her teenaged son.

"It's not only frustrating, it's also maddening. But most importantly, it's life-threatening that we have one supplier," she said.