Worldwide cancer drug shortage

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - It's the diagnosis that no-one wants to hear: cancer...and to make matters worse, many cancer patients are now being told they'll have to wait for live-saving chemo-therapy, because the drugs needed just aren't available. It's a world-wide problem, and one they struggle with at Richmond's Massey Cancer Center.

Dr. Gordon Ginder, director of VCU's Massey Cancer Center, spends far too much of his day worried about the inventory of cancer drugs in his pharmacy. It hasn't happened here, but some cancer clinics are postponing chemo-therapy for some patients because the drugs needed just aren't available. For Ginder, everyday is a juggling act.

"We do have to prioritize and we coordinate this between the pharmacist, the physician and the patients and nurses, so the patients that need the drug the most get it first and the ones that it won't compromise, their care can wait," said Ginder.

Jerry Ann Kennedy can't wait. At just 31, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and her treatments at a hospital in South Carolina have just started.

"I'll have 3 more treatments left after this week, and I'll have surgery after that and possibly radiation," Kennedy said.

There have been no delays so far, but she knows it's a possibility. She's constantly quizzing her physicians about her treatment options, and urges all cancer patients to do the same.

"Don't be afraid to ask questions, 'cause that's what the doctors are there for," Kennedy said.

The main reason for the shortages? Money. The patents have run out on many of these cancer drugs, meaning they're now generic, and often, the original manufacturer will opt out because the mark-up is so much lower. It's more profitable to sell new drugs. But these shortages actually can drive up the price.

Here's an example: The drug Levaquin is a chemo-therapeutic antibiotic used to treat bacterial infections in cancer patients. The current published price for the 500 milligram version is $2.17 a pill. Some patients have been forced to pay as high as $17.36 a pill. That's an 8-fold increase.

And the shortages may get worse before it gets better. Ginder calls it a crisis.

"If something isn't done sooner or later, there's going to be some very bad, catastrophic consequences," Ginder said.

While the government cannot compel drug companies to manufacture generic medications, many physicians would like to see congressional hearings to get to the root cause of these shortages and find a permanent solution.

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