Pharmacies in London, Ont., are feeling the effects of a nationwide shortage of cold and cough medication, prompting concerns for an upcoming flu season that’s not expected to see any of the public health measures that kept it tame over the past two years.
“I think the merchandising description is holes in the shelves, and my shelves have more holes than they have product,” said Scott Coulter, owner and pharmacist at Coulter’s Pharmacy in east London.
“It’s been like that for months.”
Coulter says he first noticed issues with receiving inventory about five or six months ago and was later “notified by most of the major players that they’re anticipating a long-term challenge as far as keeping up with demand, with their supply chain challenges contributing to the problem.”
“It could be as early as spring of next year,” until the supply issue is fixed, Coulter said, which could make the upcoming cold and flu season challenging.
“If it doesn’t improve between now and the fall, you’re going to find simple things like children’s Tylenol, infant Ibuprofen, the staples we’ll call them … are going to be really hard to source and alternatives are going to be challenging to find.”
For Gigi Dini, the managing pharmacist at Dini I.D.A. Pharmacy in Westmount, problems sprang up in March when she noticed an uptick in families seeking Infants’ Motrin Suspension Drops, an ibuprofen medication for pain and fever relief.
“From then, we could not get most of the Advils, they would just occasionally pop up in our supplier, so we may be able to order one or two every so often, but not enough to stock the shelves,” Gigi said.
In a statement to Global News, Loblaw, the parent company to Shoppers Drug Mart, said it has “seen an increase in demand for over the counter cold and flu medications in our stores across the country in comparison to this time last year.”
“This increase, in addition to supply issues experienced by our vendor partners has meant that at times, stores may be waiting longer for their next shipment to arrive. We are actively working with our vendor partners to manage the flow of goods, and ensure shelves are stocked as the product becomes available,” Loblaw added.
“It’s been somewhat of a national issue on the drug shortages front as well, so not just regional to London, but across the country,” said Jen Belcher, the vice-president of strategic initiatives and member relations for the Ontario Pharmacists Association, an advocacy organization with more than 10,000 members.
“It’s been a variety of different over-the-counter and prescription medications over the course of the pandemic, but we’re especially seeing the cough and cold medicines right now, as well as children’s painkillers be in short supply.”
Belcher expects the issue to continue for some time, especially as more people seek medication in response to symptoms tied to a respiratory illness such as colds, flus or COVID-19, an expected side effect from the lifting of public health measures such as masking and distancing.
She adds that the ongoing shortage speaks to a larger issue surrounding the supply chain vulnerability of pharmaceutical products in Canada.
“As pharmacists, we’ve been dealing with a lot of product shortages throughout the course of the pandemic because supply across the globe has been interrupted,” Belcher said.
“Products and materials are harder to sort, labour forces have been interrupted by COVID-19 infections and teams or entire plants have gone down for periods of time because of that,” Belcher said.
What the OPA wants to see is a strengthened domestic supply chain with increased investment toward Canadian manufacturing in order to protect the county’s drug supply.
“We want to ensure that we’re not having to constantly switch people in between products, especially prescription medication,” Belcher added.
In the meantime, Belcher suggests people speak to their pharmacist if they’re struggling to find a specific medication. If you don’t have your own pharmacist, Belcher says it’s helpful to bring your medical information so that the pharmacist you speak to can give the proper advice.
Coulter agrees and says in an ideal situation, there is an alternative medication available.
“Whether it’s dosage adjustments where we use an adult product in a child with the appropriate amount to give the appropriate medication content,” said Coulter.
“A lot of the active ingredients in all of these products, regardless of who makes them, are pretty much the same or identical … maybe it’s just a matter of finding an alternative that is the same thing, but just doesn’t have the name on it that you’re used to buying.”
Coulter adds that he doesn’t recommended stocking up on medication ahead of the cold and flu season.
“Over-the-counter cough and cold medications have a finite shelf-life, the expiry date might be six months, a year, a year-and-a-half at the most,” Coulter said.
“If you hoard the stuff, are you actually hoping you’re going to get sick and need to use it? It’d be a real shame see it go to waste.”