Hundreds of meds in short supply

People panic buying medication during the pandemic has led to a shortage of around 600 medicines, including many used to treat life-threatening and chronic conditions.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) says 572 medications are in short supply, including Ventolin, breast cancer medicine Tamoxifen and the flu shot.

Shortages in Ventolin and other ongoing supply shortages in pharmacies have been exacerbated by a reduction in output from factories in China and India

Many patients are finding it difficult to get prescription drugs for chronic conditions.

“Understandably, patients are fearful and unsure of the future,” said Advantage Group chief Steven Kastrinakis.

“Demand for certain pharmaceutical items have been high, and remain so, for specific items.

“Even now as we observe a flattening of the curve for new COVID-19 cases, we’re still seeing massive stock shortages.

“Over-the-counter shelves are still empty for specific supplies. Basic painkillers, feminine hygiene products, hand-washing products and asthma puffers just to name a few, are still extremely difficult to get a hold of.

“Pharmacists and their teams are not only having to deal with the legislative and workflow changes surrounding this pandemic, but also the enormous pressure and complaints from the public due to stock shortages, purchase limitations and the different ways services are being delivered during this unprecedented period.

“Front-line pharmacy teams are dealing with all of these simultaneously on a daily basis and it can take its toll.”

National president of The Pharmacy Guild of Australia, George Tambassis, said he had never seen so many medications out of stock.

“It’s definitely bigger than it has been for a while, but there was a large number of medications in short supply before COVID-19,” said Mr Tambassis.

“You can call it a shortage, a temporary or urgent shortage, but at the end of the day, if I can’t dispense it to a patient, that’s to worry about.”

Australia imports around 90 per cent of its medicines – about 22 per cent from the US. While the US is our biggest supplier, most pharmaceutical ingredients still come from China and India.

Reduced production from China and India have been big contributors to dwindling local supplies, but delays in international freight flights have also exacerbated the issue.

Panic buying has made it even worse.

When the pandemic hit, the number of prescriptions written by doctors almost doubled from 200,000 to just under 400,000 in April, The New Daily reported.

There are now ‘stock-outs’ across the nation, and specific medications can only be found in select pharmacies.

Pharmacies and GPs are mitigating supply shortages by implementing strict policies on how much medication can be prescribed.

“It is our priority to ensure every Australian has access to their vital medicines across the nation during these challenging times – for those fighting COVID-19 in our hospitals and those in the community living with chronic and ongoing health conditions,” said Medicines Australia chief Elizabeth de Somer.

“We have been deeply concerned to hear reports of patients being unable to access their brands of medicines during this crisis.

“It’s important now for everyone involved in the supply of medicines to Australians to continue to work together to ensure access to our vital medicines is managed responsibly and equitably across the country.

“It is not the time for diversions or exercises that don’t bring solutions – it’s about getting on with it and ensuring we are directing all of our efforts to the task as a fully functioning, productive team.”

Advantage Group chief Mr Kastrinakis said pharmacies were working in a variety of ways to provide essential services to patients.

“Australia has never dealt with a pandemic at this scale and pharmacies, being an essential frontline service, must continue to operate and support the community while going through significant changes,” he said.

“Working collaboratively with business partners, suppliers and pharmacy members is a key enabler to maintaining stability across the whole supply chain, and inventory management is critical during this period.

“We’re also suggesting that signage is clearly displayed in multiple places around the pharmacy.

“Simple signs indicating that only one month of prescription medication is allowed at a time; not to be alarmed that staff may be wearing masks and gloves and signs to say bad behaviour will not be tolerated all help communicate clearly before customers approach the counter.

“We’ve seen multiple examples of where signage has exacerbated difficulties. We’re seeing patients who are dealing with stress, anxiety, impatience and are maybe not used to the changes in the way the pharmacy operates in these times. Clear communication is even more crucial right now.”

Regardless, the global supply issue won’t go away any time soon, said Pharmacy Guild chief Mr Tambassis.

“This is why restrictions to supply are so important,” he said.

“So people don’t think one thing is good for them in Timbuktu and then someone in Perth misses out.”

The TGA is working to find solutions.

“The TGA is closely monitoring the national supply of medicines and working with health professional, manufacturers and wholesaler groups to identify and manage issues as they arise,” a TGA spokesperson said.

“When potential shortfalls in supply are identified, management actions may include expediting deliveries, sourcing overseas alternatives or increasing manufacturing.”

Have you got your necessary medications? Did you stockpile medicines at the outset of the pandemic?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.
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