Drug shortages — another common thing most folks don't know about

Last week there was a notice in my mailbox from the pharmacy telling me that an antibiotic intensivists use frequently, vancomycin, was in extremely short supply. We still have some, but we were instructed to watch carefully how we use it until the shortage abated. How long would that be? It shouldn’t be too long — just a couple of weeks. Actually this sort of thing happens all the time. Brief (usually), unanticipated shortages of drugs are common.

The causes of the shortages are typically some problem at the facilities that manufacture them, and often there are only a few of these. Sometimes the cause is a sudden huge spike in demand, such as we saw for the antibiotic ciprofloxacin (Cipro) a few years ago during the anthrax scare and are now seeing with oseltamivir (Tamiflu) with the current influenza outbreak, but usually the cause is just some glitch in the manufacture of the drugs. Sometimes only a single facility is making a drug. This is particularly the case if the drug is a cheap generic, one for which the manufacturer doesn’t stand to make much money. Further, there generally are no stockpiles in case of emergencies like this.

If you are interested in learning which drugs are currently in short supply (and why), the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists keeps an ongoing list here


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