Viewing Drug Shortages as a Public Health Crisis

March 4, 2019

In resource-rich countries, 5-year survival rates for children with cancer approach 85%. However, shortages in the drugs which make up the backbone of many proven and life-saving pediatric oncology regimens have become commonplace in the United States, with far-reaching consequences. In a paper published in the March 4 JAMA Pediatrics, Berman Institute professor Yoram Unguru and colleagues explore the causes and impacts of drug shortages, and call for government intervention to address this growing public health crisis.

“Typically we only get one chance to cure disease. If that opportunity is missed, it is rare we are able to cure childhood cancer,” says. Dr. Unguru. “Direct consequences of drug shortages include increased medication errors, delayed administration of life-saving therapy, inferior outcomes, and patient deaths.”

“At the height of the shortages, a survey of medical oncologists found that a staggering 83% of oncologists weren’t able to prescribe their preferred chemotherapy agent. More than 75% had to make a major change in treatment such as choosing a different treatment regimen or substitute different drugs during the treatment. And over 40% had to delay the start of treatment. Two surveys of childhood cancer specialists, in 2015 and in 2017 , found that two out of three pediatric oncologists reported that their patients’ clinical care was compromised by the shortages.”

Dr. Unguru and his co-authors argue that the U.S., like many other countries already have, should establish an essential medicines list. As defined by the WHO, essential medicines satisfy the priority health care needs of the population. Medicines included in the essential medicines listare both clinically effective and cost effective and are to be available within the context of functioning health systems at all times in adequate amounts and dosage forms, with assured quality and at an affordable price.The current WHO Essential Medicines List for Children includes 18 chemotherapy agents and 4 supportive care medicines.

“It may shock you to hear, but over the past 2.5 years, nearly two-thirds of these essential medicines for children with cancer have been or are currently in short supply in the U.S.  In fact, at this time, 5 of the 18 essential medicines, nearly 30%, are in short supply in the U.S.,” said Dr. Unguru.

Dr. Unguru is a pediatric hematologist/oncologist with joint faculty appointments at The Herman and Walter Samuelson Children’s Hospital at Sinai and The Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, where he is a Core Faculty member. He is also an Assistant Professor in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Dr. Unguru is a member of the Children’s Oncology Group, and leads a multidisciplinary, transnational working group examining the ethical and policy implications of chemotherapy shortages in childhood cancer.