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Drug Shortage Threatens Children with Cancer

Many children with cancer count on treatment with vincristine for recovery. This medication is now in critically short supply.

Vincristine is an old drug that is a pillar of oncology treatment, especially for children with cancer. It is essential for treating cancers like lymphoma, leukemia and brain tumors. Unfortunately, there is currently a severe shortage of this medication. There are no good substitutes, so oncologists are facing the prospect of having to ration the drug or not being able to treat some patients.

What Happened to Vincristine?

In June of this year, the drug firm Teva “made a business decision to discontinue the product.” That left a single supplier, Pfizer, which has had manufacturing difficulties.

According to the FDA,

“Pfizer has experienced a delay, and we are working closely with them and exploring all options to make sure this critical cancer drug is available for the patients who need it.”

That can’t come too soon for the 19,000 children with cancer treated every year. At this point, doctors can hold out an 85 percent cure rate for most pediatric cancers, but only if they have access to effective medications like vincristine.

Previous Drug Shortages That Endangered Children with Cancer:

This is not the first shortage to pose harm to children with cancer. In 2012 we wrote about a shortage of preservative-free methotrexate. Doctors use this medicine to treat youngsters with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), one of the most common childhood cancers. With treatment, approximately 80% of children with this form of leukemia survive. Without treatment, however, many die.

The reason for that shortage was traced to manufacturing quality control problems at a plant in Bedford, Ohio. Although oncologists feared that months would pass before adequate supplies would become available again, other companies scrambled to meet demand. That shortage lasted several weeks.

Shortages of Generic Drugs:

Serious drug shortages have occurred repeatedly over the last decade or so. Most of the time, the drugs in short supply are generic medications. No one seems to be able to explain why generic drug companies are no longer making adequate amounts of medicine to meet the needs of the nation. Some have blamed companies for putting profits ahead of patients’ lives. For the generic drug manufacturers of America to retain the respect and good will of the public, they will have to come up with a workable solution to prevent the kind of drug shortages that put innocent children’s lives at stake. If they won’t immediately take action, then Congress may be forced to do so.
To let the Generic Pharmaceutical Association know what you think about the current drug shortage situation, you can call: 202-249-7100, write: 777 Sixth St., NW, Suite 510; Washington, DC 20001; or go to the website.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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