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Childhood Cancer Treatment Threatened By Lack Of Medication

Photo of a set of chemotherapy vials.
The shortage of a crucial drug for childhood cancer has left families and hospitals in a desperate search for medicine. (Wikimedia Commons)

The shortage of a crucial drug that fights childhood cancers has left both families and hospitals in a desperate search for treatment.

In July, Teva Pharmaceuticals discontinued the production of vincristine, an injection vital to the treatment of children suffering from a number of different cancers.

There is no alternative medicine to replace vincristine.

In an official statement, the company said: “Teva takes very seriously the importance of vincristine…When Teva decided to stop manufacturing vincristine in the US, the company was only supplying 3% of the market. The remaining 97% was coming from the manufacturer of the brand product…With the data that was available, there was no indication of a possibility of a shortage if the company left the market and availability of Teva product has not contributed to the shortage that is being experienced today.”

Teva’s statement also said they decided to discontinue vincristine in March 2019, and alerted the FDA of its decision. But now, the drug is running low on a national level.

“We do not take elimination of any of products lightly and we always carefully evaluate the need as thoroughly as possible,” Teva said. “We are looking at any and all options to contribute to the solution now that we have been made aware that the brand product is in short supply.”

Other companies are trying to accelerate production of vincristine.

Pfizer, a multinational pharmaceutical company, released an official letter to customers: “Given the criticality of this product to patients, we will continue to prioritize Vincristine and are expediting shipments in the near term. We expect to fully meet market need for this product, with our next delivery expected in late October. Based on current forecasts, we believe our next deliveries will meet current patient needs throughout the rest of the year. We expect to fully recover on this product by January 2020.”

As the shortage of the medicine is hitting hospitals all over the country, many local facilities are dealing with the scarcity.

A St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital representative told WUSF: "We know that this is an evolving situation and while the shortage is not resolved, we do feel comfortable treating all our previously cancelled patients and have lifted all previous restrictions.  That being said, our hearts go out to the families and caregivers here and across the country who are dealing with this national shortage."

And John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital said that they are also taking serious note of what is happening: “We are aware of the national shortage of the drug Vincristine and are monitoring the situation closely. Fortunately, we are not experiencing any deficit at this time.”

Updated at 1 p.m., 10/23 with St. Joseph's Children's Hospital comment.

Adam Bakst is a WUSF/USF Zimmerman School digital news intern for summer 2019.