‘Serious’ medicine shortage takes hold amid cold and flu season

Chronic supply chain issues have been exacerbated by COVID-19.

Chronic supply chain issues have been exacerbated by COVID-19. Photo: AAP

Cold and flu season is in full swing, but sick Australians might struggle to find relief in over-the-counter medicine due to a nationwide shortage.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration said Australia was experiencing a shortage of 337 medications on Tuesday, ranging from anti-depressants to morphine.

This comes after the country experienced a shortage of more than 500 medications thanks to panic buying and international freight issues in the first year of the pandemic.

Although the TGA does not list products such as Codral Day & Night and Nurofen for Children as part of the shortage, pharmacists told The New Daily that customers seeking these basic medicines as COVID-19 and flu case numbers rise have been left disappointed, with suppliers struggling to fulfil orders.

Pharmaceutical Society of Australia national president Fei Sim said medicine shortages have been an issue for a long time, but the pandemic has put further strain on supply chains.

Australia currently imports more than 90 per cent of its medicines.

“Shortages are affecting a range of medications, from over-the-counter cold and flu medications, to prescribed medicines like the diabetes medicine Ozempic,” Dr Sim said.

“Even demand for common medicines like paracetamol is increasing, as Australians are dealing with a variety of illnesses going around.”

Dr Sim said there was ‘‘no need to stress’’.

She said pharmacists are trained to manage medicine shortages and can work with your doctor to recommend alternatives and to ensure you’re properly cared for if no alternatives can be found.

Weight-loss fad eats up diabetes treatments

Adelaide-based TerryWhite Chemmart pharmacist Tris, who only wanted her first name to be used, said the pharmacy has been unable to get enough cold and flu medications to meet demand, including Rikodeine, Panadol, nasal spray decongestant and Lemsip.

Prescription COVID antivirals Paxlovid and Lagevrio are also in short supply – although she attributes these supply issues to the pharmacy only ordering small numbers due to the high cost of the medication and uncertainty over demand levels.

She said the pharmacy was also taken by surprise by the high demand for type 1 diabetes treatment Ozempic.

Ozempic is a treatment for type 2 diabetes patients who need to lose weight or lower their blood sugar, and can’t tolerate, or gain no benefit from, the standard medication Metformin.

In May 2021, the TGA issued a statement directed at GPs, urging them to stop prescribing the drug for obesity management after social media helped spread the word that the drug can be used to help shed significant amounts of weight – and promptly caused a shortage.

The TGA warned pharmacists they might need to refuse prescriptions for people who have been prescribed Semaglutide (a key component of Ozempic) for non-diabetes conditions, which Tris said her pharmacy has had to put into practice.

Sydney City Pharmacy owner and pharmacist Peter Galettis said the current medicine shortages are “quite serious”.

He said Ozempic has been out of stock at his pharmacy for two months, leading to a strained supply of alternative medication, Trulicity.

Pharmacists given no answers over shortages

Even the supply of children’s medication has been affected.

“You can’t get Nurofen liquid for children, you can’t get Panadol liquid for children, which is quite unusual for this time of the year because it is winter,” Mr Galettis said.

“People are going from pharmacy to pharmacy to try and get them, but you can’t get them from anywhere.”

Mr Galettis said Australia’s three major pharmacy suppliers – Australian Pharmaceutical Industries, Symbion and Sigma Healthcare – are unable to fulfil stock orders for several medications and have failed to explain why to pharmacies.

These companies did not respond to The New Daily’s request for comment in time for publication.

“Nobody seems to know [why there are shortages],” Mr Galettis said.

“We keep hearing it’s a supply issue. But what does that mean?

“It’s just very upsetting for the patients, because I can’t get their medication. It’s not good.”

Dr Sim said more needs to be done to ensure a consistent supply of Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme medicines, which are essential for many Australians’ health and wellbeing.

She said the Medicines Supply Security Guarantee – an agreement with the federal government that will require medical companies to hold a minimum of four to six months’ worth of stock in Australia for certain PBS-listed medicines – will help ease shortages when it comes into effect in July 2023.

But she warned the measure will also lead to price rises for up to 900 different medicines.

Under the agreement from October 1, PBS-listed medicines below $2 will see prices increased to $2.50.

Medicines with a price between $2 and $3.50 will have a 50 cent increase applied, up to a maximum of $3.50.

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