Supply issues still plague kids’ pain medicine, antibiotics. Why parents continue to struggle

Click to play video: 'Alberta  government looks to recoup $80M from children’s medicine shipment'
Alberta government looks to recoup $80M from children’s medicine shipment
Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping said it cost $80 million to get five million bottles of pain and fever medication for kids a few months ago. The province had a plan to get more medicine for kids on the shelf - but a delayed shipment means it's now trying to plan how to break even on the cost. Morgan Black explains – Mar 9, 2023

Parents on the hunt for children’s pain medicine or antibiotics in Canada may still be out of luck as supply shortages continue to put a strain on some pharmacies, according to experts.

Although the supply of children’s pediatric medication has stabilized since 2022, these drugs can still be hard to find, explained Danielle Paes, chief pharmacist officer at the Canadian Pharmacists Association.

“When it comes to the shortage of specifically children’s acetaminophen and ibuprofen, it appears the worse is behind us,” she said.

“However, we are still having supply challenges. So I would say to parents and caregivers if you go to the pharmacy and the medication isn’t on the shelf, talk to the pharmacist as it’s possible that maybe they’ll have it behind the counter … or talk about alternatives you can buy.”

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She said parents still may have to shop around as it is still a hit or miss if pharmacy shelves are stocked with the needed pain reliever or antibiotic.

“If you don’t find it in one pharmacy, just check in another pharmacy, as we are finding there is a variation of who has it in stock,” she said. “You may still have to hunt for it but generally speaking it has improved considerably since the past fall.”

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Ottawa promises to restock Canada’s drug shortage

Starting last summer, infant and children’s acetaminophen and ibuprofen products were flying off the shelves at retail outlets, pharmacies and hospitals across Canada.

At the time, Health Canada said the shortage was due to unprecedented demand, as pediatricians noted an unusually early rise in viral illnesses over the spring and summer months in 2022.

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In November, in order to meet the skyrocketing demand for children’s cold and flu medicine, manufacturers increased production by 30 per cent, and the federal government ordered more than one million bottles from other countries.

Now that flu and cold season are almost behind us, Paes said the demand is starting to normalize.

“But we are still experiencing inconsistencies in stock,” she said. “In general, the supply challenges are most significantly impacting our pediatric medicines.”

Nicole McNaught, a mother living in Port Perry, Ont., said her 10-month-old son recently started teething, so she went out to buy infant Tylenol for him a few weeks ago. She didn’t find any in stock in the pharmacies in her town.

She called the situation “frustrating” as shopping around for the right medicine with a teething baby is very stressful.

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“When I was up with my baby at 2 a.m., who wants to measure and juggle how much he needs in (the equivalent) of children’s Tylenol?” she said.

Luckily, she said her husband works in Pickering, and was able to get two bottles (the store had a purchase limit) in the city on his way home from work one evening.

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“It was 30 kilometres away from my house,” McNaught added. “We are fortunate enough as he leaves the town every day, but what about families who don’t leave the town? Not everyone has that luxury.”

Children's antibiotics shortage continues

Beyond the children’s pain medicine shortage, starting in October 2022, shortages of antibiotics, primarily amoxicillin, have also been reported throughout Canada, according to the Canadian Pharmacists Association.

Similarly, the antibiotics shortage is the result of an overwhelming demand driven by a surge in respiratory, particularly among children, the association stated.

Kristen Watt, a pharmacist and owner of Kristen’s Pharmacy in Southampton, Ont., said the supply of pediatric fever reducers is coming in, albeit, slower than usual.

“It’s not just you can order whatever you want and it always shows up. But we do have supply in stock,” she said.

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But, with antibiotics, she said, medications go on and off backorder.

“And what that means is that on any particular day, I may not be able to order a particular antibiotic that I need to supply to a family that has a prescription for it,” Watt explained.

“So we have to go back to the doctor and understand what the prescription was for and recommend an alternative that we can get our hands on at this time.”

A Canada-wide problem

Shortages of pediatric medicines are being recorded across the country.

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The Pharmacy Association of Nova Scotia told Global News on Thursday that although supply is improving, it’s not back to normal levels.

“Pharmacies have more inventory but it’s still highly variable,” Allison Bodnar, CEO of the association said in an email.

The supply strain is also hitting Alberta.

Jody Shkrobot, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, explained that it’s still a toss-up if pharmacies will have children’s pain relievers or antibiotics.

“There is less demand, but it is a hit or miss, sometimes 12 bottles will be available and then it’s gone right away,” he said. “Antibiotics are also still a challenge with amoxicillin, as we keep seeing timelines from manufacturers getting pushed back.”

Global News reached out to Health Canada about the drug shortages and the government agency said as of March 15, seven out of the eight companies that market prescription amoxicillin and amoxicillin-clavulanic in oral suspension continue to report shortages.

The companies include Sivem Pharmaceuticals, Sanis Health, Apotex, Auro Pharma, Teva Canada, Pro Doc Limitée and Glaxosmithkline.

“While there are signals that supply is improving, demand remains elevated,” a Health Canada spokesperson told Global News in an email.

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“Therefore, it is possible that the supply at some pharmacies may be intermittently impacted. Companies are providing Health Canada with regular updates on monthly resupplies. Resupplies were confirmed in December, January and February and more supply is planned for March into April.”

Click to play video: 'Canadian pharmacies facing shortage of adult cold and flu medication'
Canadian pharmacies facing shortage of adult cold and flu medication

Will there be a spring shortage?

As cold and flu season winds down, Paes said she is hopeful the supply of pediatric medicine will start outpacing demand, but it’s still difficult to predict if there will be more shortages in the near future.

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“We are hopeful there will be an improvement, but I think this is the way it’s going to be for a little while until we can bring the supply back to some form of balance,” she said.

In terms of allergy season that’s just around the corner, she said there shouldn’t be a shortage of children’s allergy medicine, as the demand for it isn’t as high as pain relievers.

However, Shkrobot warns that although allergy medicine may not be used as much as pain relievers, if demands start to take off, then shortages may happen.

“It will be interesting to see what happens this year on that front, it is just a question mark on how quickly manufactures can ramp up things up,” he added.

— with files from Global News’ Saba Aziz

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