Scarcity of several high-profile prescription drugs, such as the antibiotic amoxicillin and the ADHD treatment Adderall, have had some patients searching pharmacies and rationing pills, and now parents in some areas are having to hunt to find over-the-counter pain- and fever-reducing medications for their sick kids.
So what’s going with the availability of medications in the United States?
Nothing too unusual, experts say. Even when demand is not sky-high, drugs shortages happen regularly – but usually more quietly – in the US.
Shortages “hit a lot of different patient populations with different drugs and whatnot, but many of those don’t get a lot of headline news because they’re very niche,” said David Margraf, a pharmaceutical research scientist with the Resilient Drug Supply Project at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
At any time, the reasons why shelves may be empty vary from place to place and from drug to drug. Each shortage has its own particular factors.
“They’re all a different tale,” Margraf said. “There’s commonalities between them, but each one is a little bit different and it’s very tedious trying to figure out what’s going on sometimes.”
Some drugs are generally more vulnerable to shortage due to a lack of economic incentives to produce them.
Sometimes, manufacturing disruptions, labor issues or ingredient shortages will reduce availability. While the US is a major developer of new medications for the world, it is also heavily dependent on other countries for the manufacturing of those drugs.
Many of the raw ingredients that go in to making drugs are sourced from just two countries, China and India, says Bindiya Vakil, chief executive officer of Resilinc, a company that maps and monitors pharmaceutical supply chains with the aim of giving an early warning to clients when trouble is on the way. Any disruption in China or India, such as work stoppage at a factory due to China’s strict zero Covid policy, which was only recently eased, may have a ripple effect on the supplies of many products, including medications.
Even with normal levels of production, high demand during a tough cold and flu season – like the one the US is experiencing – can make it hard for families to find what they’re looking for.
Whitney Hemsath, a writer and mother of four living in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, said she has been noticing how little children’s medication has been on store shelves for a few weeks, but she wasn’t too worried since the family still had some at home.
Last week, though, her 4-year-old woke up in the middle of the night with a painful ear infection, and she got an unpleasant surprise: They were out of pain medication.
She started looking for a store that was open at 5:30 a.m., and found one with three bottles of children’s acetaminophen left. There was no ibuprofen, which lasts longer, and no generics or store brands. While she was grateful to find something, she says the family is on a tight budget while her husband finishes his Ph.D., so paying for the brand name medicine was frustrating.
Later that day, their pediatrician confirmed the ear infection and prescribed the antibiotic amoxicillin. He called the prescription into a chain pharmacy, but gave her a written copy, too, in case it was difficult to find. Sure enough, the first pharmacy was out, and so was the next. Based on the pharmacist’s list, she called her doctor to change her son’s prescription – but the pharmacy didn’t take their insurance and the alternative medication was too expensive.
Finally, she was able to find another chain pharmacy that had amoxicillin and took their insurance.
Her son is doing better now, and she said she feels bad complaining because she was lucky to find what she needed – but it took time and effort she wasn’t used to.
“It never used to be like this,” she said. “There were always so many options and well stocked shelves before … now you’re lucky if they have one type of any brand of the medicine that you want.