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COLUMN: Carol Hughes on childrens' medicine shortage

Children’s pain medication shortage should never have happened, says Algoma - Manitoulin - Kapuskasing Member of Parliament
MP Carol Hughes
Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes. File photo

Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP, Carol Hughes writes a regular column about initiatives and issues impacting our community.

For many parents of younger children in Canada, the last few months have been particularly challenging. Pharmacy shelves have been lacking significant supplies of children’s pain, cold, and flu management drugs, especially common drugs like children’s acetaminophen and ibuprofen.

It’s a bizarre made-in-Canada problem that Health Canada confirmed could be an issue as far back as April. At the time, Health Canada worked with suppliers to double production, and then come August, they were still aware there would be shortages, with demand three to four times what it would be in a normal year.

What’s all the more baffling is that the government did not prepare for the inevitable outcome when it was known that cold and flu season would be among the most challenging in years, and that even working with manufacturers to double production wasn’t going to be sufficient.

The supply of children’s acetaminophen and ibuprofen across the country has dwindled significantly, with shelves in pharmacies and grocery stores empty. It’s causing problems well beyond access, as hospitals across the country are seeing children being hit with a triple threat of viruses, from respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), COVID-19 and the flu, causing some children’s hospitals to operate at up to 200 percent capacity.

With the lack of supply of children’s acetaminophen and ibuprofen, an already bad situation is becoming worse. A normal childhood fever that could be broken with generic, over-the-counter medication can’t be, forcing parents to take children to ERs, compounding the problem of overcrowded children’s hospitals even further.

The shortages in children’s acetaminophen and ibuprofen appears to be a uniquely Canadian problem. The U.S. has not seen issues keeping shelves stocked with children’s medication.

Obviously supply chain issues are a part of the equation, as are the increases in RSV, cold and flu, and COVID cases in children that are driving higher than expected purchases of these drugs.

In many instances, like in any other time of a shortage of a good, some people started stockpiling the medication, further compounding access problems. As a result, some parents are crossing the border to buy them, while others are purchasing them through online marketplaces like Amazon for exorbitant rates. There’s no easy solution when your children are ill. Parents will do what they can to ensure the health and wellbeing of their children, as they should.

Health Canada recently announced that three proposals to import more than one million bottles of foreign-sourced children’s pain and fever medication has been finalized, and that they could be hitting shelves and hospitals as early as this week, but there are warnings that the supply may not be enough.

Justin Bates, the CEO of the Ontario Pharmacists Association, recently stated in a Toronto Star article that “based on the demand, and the fact that we’re seeing the spread and infection rates so high for RSV, colds, flu and COVID, that one million is not going to last long. That number is for the entire country.”

In the short term, it seems that importing additional supply is the only answer, but what is the solution to prevent situations like this from occurring in the future?

One answer that may help resolve these issues is to have the government create a public drug manufacturer to supply the generic medications people need. We have limited drug manufacturing capacities in Canada, and ensuring we have the ability to create generics at home would alleviate situations where there is a run on certain medications that we need.

Having our supply of necessary drugs be dependent on foreign markets weakens our ability to address crises like this when they happen. Ensuring that our capacity is kept public would keep prices low and guarantee that they could get to markets when necessary.

Another way we can address these issues in the future is to take the advice of Dr. Saad Ahmed, a physician and co-founder of Critical Drugs Coalition, who recently appeared at the House of Commons Health Committee meeting where the topic of drug shortages was being examined.

He argued that Canada needs to develop a national critical medications list, and a stockpile of those same medicines to ensure enough supply is available in situations such as the one we currently find ourselves in.

These solutions won’t alleviate children’s acetaminophen and ibuprofen shortages immediately, but they just may be necessary if we are to ensure situations like these don’t become normalized.