© Agence France-Presse/Martin Bureau
Morphine: not guaranteed even for the dying.
A nationwide drug shortage has left American hospital patients untreated and in pain. Manufacturing problems have left emergency care providers without some of the most crucial medicines, putting lives at risk.
More than 100 drugs were put on the shortage list this year, prompting Congressional hearings and leading to an executive order by President Barack Obama, which forces drug companies to publicize their shortages.
Health care workers have had no other option than to ration some medicines, giving it only to patients that need it most. Paul Davis, the chief of a rural ambulance squad in Ohio, told the New York Times
that he was unable to give morphine to a woman with a broken leg because he was saving his last pills for patients he thought needed it more.
Elsewhere, desperate health care workers are treating patients with expired drugs and less effective medicine. Those with cancer have been hit particularly hard. About 80 percent of the drugs in short supply are generic medicines for injection, including the chemotherapy treatment drug Doxil, WFTV reports. Sodium bicarbonate injections, which are used to stabilize critically ill patients suffering from sepsis, heart attacks or other cardiac problems, are also in short supply.
"When you can't treat basic things - cardiac arrest, pain management, seizures - you're in trouble. When you only have five tools in your toolbox and three of them are gone, what do you do?" Dr. Carol Cunningham, state medical director for the Ohio Department of Public Safety's emergency services division, told the Times
While this year's shortage has left many without the care they needed, it is not as critical as the 2011 drug shortage, which left more than 250 drugs in short supply and threatened the lives of cancer patients. Since 2005, drug shortages have increased almost 300 percent. To combat the problem, the FDA has relaxed its restrictions on importing drugs and made it easier for manufacturers to get approval to make certain medicines.
But this, too, has brought further problems to health care providers. With looser regulations, manufacturers have been able to get poor-quality medicines onto the market, including a chemotherapy drug that was found to contain glass particles.
And the shortages are predicted to get worse. The deadly meningitis outbreak that infected 480 and killed 33 prompted the permanent termination of Ameridose. Hurricane Sandy's aftermath has also increased the demand for certain drugs and contributed to the shortage. Victims of the storm are in critical need of hypertension medicines like Lasix and antibiotics like Cipro. The need is so great that a foreign company called Canadiandrugsaver is providing the drugs to relief agencies who request them.
Some of those lucky enough to receive the medicine they needed have expressed their good fortune on Twitter.
"Received nitro, magnesium, morphine during hospital stay. All on shortage list. Lucky to go to a wealthy hosp(ital)," tweeted @knit1pug2.
The FDA is now importing six drugs in critical short supply, but it has not identified the importer.
"This is a huge, growing crisis in this country, where we're actually having to ration drugs," Dr. Wendel Naumann, an oncologist from Carolinas Medical Center in North Carolina, told CNN.