Calgary doctor hopeful as Health Canada works to address serious drug shortage

An Alberta doctor says she's relieved to hear Health Canada is taking steps to address a nationwide shortage of a key thyroid drug.

Canada's only supplier of propylthiouracil (PTU) stopped making it in December

The Canadian Society of Endocrinology and Metabolism wrote a letter to federal health minister expressing 'grave concerns' about the discontinuation of PTU, the preferred treatment for pregnant women with hyperthyroidism. (Nadya Eugene/Shutterstock)

An Alberta doctor says she's relieved to hear Health Canada is taking steps to address a nationwide shortage of a key thyroid drug.

Propylthiouracil (PTU) is used to treat people with hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) who can't take the first-line medication because they are pregnant, trying to conceive or have a drug allergy.

Canada's only supplier discontinued the drug in December and Health Canada — which listed PTU as a Tier 3 drug shortage on May 25 — told CBC News last week it was aware of "localized reports" of patients who couldn't access the medication.

More supplies identified

On June 18, Health Canada added a new supplier of PTU to its list of "designated drugs" that can be imported in exceptional circumstances.

According to the Canadian Society for Endocrinology and Metabolism (CSEM) — which wrote a letter to the federal health minister expressing "grave" concerns about the shortage and met with Health Canada this week — Phebra Canada has proposed to bring in a limited supply of PTU from Australia by July.

The group says a larger batch of the drug is expected in October.

"It's fantastic," said Dr. Lois Donovan, a Calgary endocrinologist who specializes in treating pregnant women with thyroid problems and diabetes. Donovan is also a clinical professor in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary. 

One of her pregnant patients ran out of PTU last week and she had to scour the country to secure a three-month supply from a pharmacy that still had some stock left.

"It means that we're able to give the patients the treatment that they need that's safer for them in pregnancy," Donovan said.

Without the drug, she said doctors and patients would have to consider riskier alternatives, such as reverting to the first-line drug (which has higher rates of congenital abnormalities) or stopping treatment altogether.

Calgary endocrinologist Dr. Lois Donovan specializes in treating pregnant women with thyroid conditions. (Supplied by Dr. Lois Donovan)

The CSEM estimates the pockets of PTU supply that are left around the country will run out within three to four months and up to 10,000 Canadians could be impacted.

"Now it's upon Health Canada and the producer to see whether they can agree and go forward with the proposal," said Dr. Stan Van Uum, president-elect of the Canadian Society of Endocrinology and Metabolism and professor at Western University in London, Ont.

"If all the plans work out correctly, [this] would provide sufficient supply for a whole year of PTU."

Van Uum said it's unclear how long it could take to get the new supply of PTU on pharmacy shelves once it is initially imported.

"We feel the time window is extremely tight before we completely run out in Canada and this needs to continue to have high priority."


Jennifer Lee


Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary. She worked at CBC Toronto, Saskatoon and Regina, before landing in Calgary in 2002. If you have a health or human interest story to share, let her know.


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