Pfizer warns of looming penicillin shortage in the U.S. What about Canada?

Click to play video: 'Concerns raised about syphilis in pregnant women'
Concerns raised about syphilis in pregnant women
WATCH: Concerns raised about syphilis in pregnant women – May 8, 2019

A shortage of an effective drug used to treat syphilis in pregnant patients and bacterial infections in children could run dry by the end of June, Pfizer warned this week.

In a letter written to its customers in the United States on June 12, the pharmaceutical giant said there is a limited supply and “impending” shortage of its penicillin medication called Bicillin.

Pfizer is the only manufacturer of Bicillin in Canada. The drug is the most effective antibiotic in the treatment of all syphilis in pregnant patients. It also can treat common childhood infections, like strep, ear infections or pneumonia.

In an email to Global News, a spokesperson from Pfizer Canada said the “situation is not currently impacting Canada, but we continue to monitor closely.”

Global News reached out to Health Canada for comment, but the agency did not respond back at the time of publication.

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What's behind the looming shortage

The supply shortage is the result of a “complex combination of factors” including significant increases in demand due to a rise in syphilis infection rates, Pfizer stated in its letter Monday.

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Supply of the pediatric version of the drug is expected to be exhausted by the end of this quarter, the company said. However, Pfizer told Reuters in an email the pediatric version of the antibiotic is not widely used, as there are other alternatives such as amoxicillin.

Click to play video: 'Amoxicillin in short supply'
Amoxicillin in short supply

The supply for kids will dwindle because Pfizer instead plans to prioritize the medication for adults, as Bicillin is very effective in treating syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease. The drugmaker said while there is a shortage of adult doses, it does not expect them to run out.

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The shortage is predicted to start recovering in the second and third quarters of 2024, Pfizer said.

Cases of congenital syphilis, when the infection passes to babies during pregnancy, have spiked over the past few years in Canada, according to Health Canada.

Babies with congenital syphilis are at higher risk of low birth weight, bone malformations and sensory difficulties, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Syphilis in pregnancy is also the second-leading cause of stillbirth worldwide, WHO added.

In 2016, Canada experienced a temporary shortage of Bicillin. Pfizer Canada said at the time “production issues” at its manufacturing plant were to blame.

During the shortage, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), recommended, “conserving available stock of Bicillin using alternative treatments wherever feasible or possible.”

— with files from Reuters

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