PORTLAND, OR (KPTV) - A treatment for kids who have cancer is being rationed at hospitals all over the country, including in Portland, because of a widespread shortage.
The IV therapy called Vincristine is in short supply after Teva Pharmaceutical stopped making it earlier this year. According to the FDA’s website, “Teva made a business decision to discontinue the product.”
The only other manufacturer, Pfizer, is reportedly working to fill back orders.
With future supply uncertain, the medication is being rationed at Portland’s Randall Children’s Hospital and countless other places, as doctors face an impossibly difficult decision over who will get a dose now and who will have to wait a little longer.
“It’s not an easy conversation to have. It’s heart-wrenching, to be honest,” Dr. Janice Olson said. “I feel horrible when I walk into a family’s room and say, ‘I know your child is due for this medication today and we just don’t have it,’ or, ‘We have had to prioritize for children who have a greater need than yours.’”
Olson is the Clinical Director of Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders at Randall Children’s Hospital. She said she just learned about the shortage five days ago and that at that time, she was told to expect short supply through the end of the year; fortunately, she got an update Wednesday that additional shipments could be coming by the end of October.
Still, nothing is for certain, and she says the hospital only has a third of the drug it needs to get through the rest of the month. She said two patients were turned away Wednesday alone.
5-year-old Eli Tilley is one of the local children who may not get the medication he needs. He was diagnosed with T-cell leukemia in July, and as part of his treatment at Randall Children’s Hospital, he needs eight doses of Vincristine in the next two months.
His mother says he’ll get at least two doses, but after that, his access to the medication may be limited.
“With T-cell [leukemia], a relapse can be quite a big deal,” Eli’s mother, Iris Tilley, said. “It’s very hard to eradicate the second time, so it’s important for us to kind of get it right the first time and get him all the treatment he needs the first time. So, it’s scary thinking that maybe we won’t have access to have some of that treatment.”
Dr. Olson said ninety-percent of her patients use the drug, including every child with leukemia and most with solid tumors.
But the profit margins for drug makers are small, and with future supply uncertain, she said the pharmacist at the hospital is making calls to other hospitals and adult programs all over the area, looking for any Vincristine medication that isn’t spoken for. She knows it’s an uphill battle.
“There isn’t a children’s hospital in the country that will give up their supply,” she said.
Iris Tilley said she looked into taking her son to Seattle to get the medication, but hospitals there are dealing with the same shortage.
“I know that many of these drugs have really low reimbursement rates,” Iris Tilley said. “But at the same time, these are kids with cancer.”
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