Cancer society decries drug shortage

It is unacceptable that some cancer patients can't readily get the drugs they need because of supply problems, the Canadian Cancer Society says.

Government urged to take action on national plan

It is unacceptable that some cancer patients can’t readily get the drugs they need because of supply problems, the Canadian Cancer Society says.

The society is hearing from worried patients and doctors across the country, said Dan Demers, the group's director of public issues.

"We shouldn't have to wait for a crisis to respond," said Demers.

Some cancer patients in Alberta have had to get anti-nausea pills from a pharmacy before starting chemotherapy instead of getting the medication by injection in hospital. (CBC)

The cancer society urged the federal government to:

  • Ensure there is mandatory listing of unavailable drugs by drug manufacturer.
  • Develop early warning systems to identify potential drug shortages.
  • Put systems in place to prevent shortages from escalating.
  • Work with other jurisdictions to investigate the root causes of the shortages and act to prevent them where possible.

Canada's supply of injectable drugs such as painkillers, antibiotics and anesthetics became more precarious following a fire in the boiler room at Sandoz Canada's plant in Boucherville, Que.

"Production has resumed in the portion of the plant that was not directly affected by the incident, which took place on March 4," the company said in a email to CBC News on Monday. "Our objective is to restore previous levels of supply as soon as possible, and we will make every effort to meet medical needs, while ensuring consistent high quality standards."

Rationing supplies

The company was unable to quantify how much more capacity it now has.

Anthony Dale, vice-president of policy and public affairs at the Ontario Hospital Association in Toronto, called it "outrageous" that one company could have this kind of effect on drug supplies.

Dale also called for a national strategy, noting hospitals are taking inventory of their supplies and trying to share and to compound or carefully mix drugs from raw ingredients under sterile conditions.

Hospitals and drug purchasers have been holding daily conference calls to mitigate shortages. Doctors are carefully selecting patients who can swallow to give them oral forms of the medications, said Myrella Roy, executive director of the Canadian Society of Hospital Pharmacists in Ottawa.

Last week, officials with Alberta Health Services asked doctors to conserve injectable medications. Cancer patients were asked to get oral anti-nausea medications instead of injections before chemotherapy treatment.

In mid-February, Sandoz informed hospitals and other health-care clients that it was partially closing its plant in Boucherville while it improved its process to meet U.S. safety standards, the Canadian Anesthesiologists' Society said in a news release.

The company told the anesthesiologists group that dozens of critical medications will no longer be manufactured while others will be available on "allocation" based upon previous usage, a manufacturing and delivery situation that could last 12 to 18 months, the group said in their release.

Health Canada said last week it is working to identify alternate sources of supply and expedite approvals for any drug companies that meet Canadian standards for safety and effectiveness.

With files from CBC's Melanie Glanz and Leslie McLaren