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Drug Shortages Imperil Patient Care

California anesthesiologist Michael Port fills a syringe with the anesthetic propofol in 2009.
Frederick M. Brown
Getty Images
California anesthesiologist Michael Port fills a syringe with the anesthetic propofol in 2009.

Modern medicines can be lifesavers. But they don't do much good if patients can't get them.

And, these days, drug shortages are a real problem. Turns out that a record number of medicines — to treat conditions ranging from cancer to life-threatening infections — are in short supply, the Washington Post reports.

There were shortages of 211 drugs last year, three times the number in 2006.

One of the worst problems is with cytarabine, a medicine for various forms of leukemia and lymphoma.

Shortages of the antibiotic amikacin and acyclovir, an antiviral, have "contributed to patient deaths from infections that were only sensitive" to those drugs, according to a 2010 survey of more than 1,800 health professionals conducted by the nonprofit Institute for Safe Medication Practices. Some drugs used in surgery, such as the anesthetic propofol, have also been hard to find.

The ISMP survey found doctors, nurses and pharmacists "feel unsupported by the Food and Drug Administration" in dealing with the shortages and are "perplexed regarding why the U.S. is experiencing drug shortages of epic proportion that are often associated with third-world countries."

What's causing the shortages? The FDA, which tracks the growing problem with medically necessary drugs, says some of the most important factors are manufacturing difficulties. There are raw material shortages in some cases. Reduced factory capacity due to industry consolidation is another issue. And some companies have dropped older drugs, leaving manufacturing in the hands of fewer companies.

"The types of products we're seeing shortages of are really concerning," FDA's Valerie Jensen, told the Post. "This is affecting oncology drugs, critical-care drugs, emergency medicine drugs. We're doing everything we can under our current authority to try to deal with this situation."

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Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.