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Australia faces drug shortages: experts -

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Medical experts warn Australia is facing shortages of essential hospital drugs and is in need of a
centralised distribution network.

Transcript

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: Medical experts are warning that Australia faces increasing shortages of
essential hospital drugs and urgently needs a centralised emergency management system to ensure
fair distribution.

Three senior medical bodies, including oncology specialists and hospital pharmacists have written
to the Therapeutic Goods Administration calling for an early warning system following the most
recent scare when a critical cancer drug almost ran out.

Margot O'Neill reports.

MARGOT O'NEILL, REPORTER: Australia's cancer specialists were shocked to receive an urgent warning
from an international drug supplier that stocks of the widely used and essential chemotherapy drug
Doxorubicin would run out last week. The warning was as blunt as it was alarming: " ... alternative
arrangements will need to be made for both new and on-going patient treatments."

DAN MELLOR, CLINICAL ONCOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF AUST.: So it did come as a bit of a shock and left us
grasping for ideas about what we might like to treat patients with if the worst did happen and the
drug supply just completely dried up.

MARGOT O'NEILL: New supplies were eventually sourced and the crisis averted, but it's the latest in
a string of shortages. Last September, it was injectable penicillin. Hospitals were forced to
ration when stocks ran dangerously low. Medical experts say that in the past year up to 90 drugs
have run short.

Lateline was contacted today by a health professional who had a secret list of more than 30 drugs
in short supply in a major NSW hospital right now. They included critical antibiotics, adrenaline
and some diabetic drugs.

DAN MELLOR: Recently, over the last couple of months, more and more drugs are becoming unavailable.

SIMON QUILTY, JOHN HUNTER HOSPITAL, NEWCASTLE: For instance, intravenous labetalol, which is a very
important drug for people who have an acute stroke and need to have their blood pressure measured,
kept down low, that actually ran out and we had none left in the hospital and we had to use
alternatives that we didn't feel very comfortable using.

MARGOT O'NEILL: It's part of a worldwide problem, with the United States now facing a chronic
shortage of more than 200 drugs each year and rising, most of them traditional, essential
medicines.

SIMON QUILTY: I think the drugs that are vulnerable to the Australian population are the more acute
medications that are used within hospitals, particularly the injectal medications like
chemotherapies, anaesthetic agents and intravenous antibiotics.

MARGOT O'NEILL: One reason: the rise of less profitable generic drugs and less factories making
them. That's weakened and narrowed the international supply chain at a time of rising global
demand. So that means if a factory closes, if a batch is contaminated or if there's a natural
disaster, international supplies get squeezed.

And because Australia imports most of its essential medicines and it's a relatively small market,
it can get squeezed out. That's why some medical groups now want the Federal Government to step in.

SIMON QUILTY: I don't think that in Australia there's any government body that's actually
monitoring it, but the FDA in the US are very pro-active.

MARGOT O'NEILL: Last week's crisis over the cancer drug Doxorubicin is a case in point. Cancer
clinics around the country were left in a mad scramble.

DAN MELLOR: Individual hospitals will find out that there may be an issue with a particular drug
and some hospitals may not find out, and this is a process that is duplicated in every hospital
around every major city, in every town across Australia. So it's a huge wasted effort and quite
often we all come out with a slightly different picture depending on who we've spoken to.

MARGOT O'NEILL: And because there's been no official notification that the crisis is over, some
patients are still being denied Doxorubicin today.

DAN MELLOR: Yeah, I had a phone call this morning from an oncologist who wanted to prescribe
Doxorubicin for a patient, but was told there was none available. It makes me feel angry,
especially when you put yourself in the place of a patient. A patient's being told that they may or
may not get the best treatment for them on the basis of information that's incorrect.

MARGOT O'NEILL: Oncology experts, hospital pharmacists and cancer groups have now written to the
Therapeutic Goods Administration, or the TGA, asking for a new centralised approach to future drug
shortages, including an early warning system, national notification of relevant health care
practitioners and legislation to ensure the supply and equitable distribution of essential
medicines. A statement from the TGA said provisions already existed to ensure continuity of supply
and to warn of stock shortages.

Margot O'Neill, Lateline.