Doctors who specialize in children’s cancers face a dire shortage of crucial chemotherapy drugs.
In fact, 93% of cancer centers have an inadequate supply of at least one drug, according to a survey by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network. The inability to get prescribed treatments can have life-and-death consequences for young patients and their families.
Drug Shortages Force Difficult Decisions
Supplies of chemotherapy drugs like vinblastine, cisplatin and dacarbazine have been chronically low for months. These drugs are effective at treating childhood cancers, and few alternative treatments exist. Health care providers who can’t get what they need must substitute less effective drugs or delay treatment, allowing the disease to progress.
The most effective treatments are often multi-drug regimens, and shortages of any one component may result in substandard care. Replacements are generally less effective and may have more serious side effects, or not be suitable for use in children, leaving doctors out of options.
Health care providers and patients who rely on these treatments have had to make difficult choices while supplies remain low. Some hospitals and clinics have reduced doses to make at least moderately effective treatments available to more patients. Rationing is also occurring among the most advanced cases, shortening the lives of patients beyond cure so the medications can go to someone with a better prognosis.
Children’s chances of survival, already the source of so much pain and worry for their families, are pushed further into question by the scarcity of the most effective medications.
Policy Prescriptions for Improving Supply
Enormous progress has been made in pioneering these life-saving treatments, but their power is blunted if they are not available to every child who would benefit. The challenges that constrain supply include the complexity of the drugs, quality control at manufacturing facilities, concentration of production among a few companies and low reimbursement rates for cancer drugs.
Policy change is necessary to help children who could be cancer free if adequate drug supplies were available.
The Biden Administration’s attempts to address the shortages have had some success, but shortages that last months have serious consequences for those needing treatment. A more proactive approach to stabilizing the supply chain is essential to prevent future shortages. Every child battling cancer deserves the best possible chance at survival, and that starts with ensuring a consistent and reliable supply of essential medications.