‘We’re in an urgent situation’: Health Canada looking at options to stock children’s medications

As concerns grow about the shortage of children’s Tylenol, Health Canada has waived certain labelling rules in order to import pain relievers from the US and Australia, but pharmacists say much more needs to be done. Tina Yazdani reports.

By Tina Yazdani and Meredith Bond

As various respiratory illnesses spread in kids across the country, pharmacies are looking at alternatives to stock their shelves with children’s medicine.

Liquid Tylenol and other medications have been in short supply since the summer due to the unprecedented demand for infant and children’s acetaminophen and ibuprofen products.

Some pharmacists have even been forced to make the liquid form of children’s pain relievers from raw ingredients. It’s been nearly four months since a Beaches pharmacy in Toronto received a shipment of children’s Tylenol or Advil.

Pharmacist Kyro Maseh tells CityNews it’s been hard to witness as desperate parents come in or call every 15 minutes looking for the product.

“It’s extremely heartbreaking when I have a parent and can hear the child screaming in the back over the phone,” Maseh said. “It tears my heart apart.”

Ontario Pharmacists Association CEO Justin Bates said manufacturers forecast what is needed based on annual consumption rates, and this year took them by surprise.

“We saw more instances of respiratory illnesses and things that we would typically see in the fall with the cold and flu season started much earlier … it was a 300 per cent increase in demand.”

RELATED: Ontario currently over capacity with pediatric ICU beds, new data shows

Bates said the supply chain in Canada is working to combat the shortage by ramping up production by 35 per cent, but more measures will need to be brought in to address the deficit.

He explained that Health Canada would have to make an exemption to allow the import of children’s Advil and Tylenol from the U.S.

“Right now, the regulatory process is that they would need to be approved by Health Canada and receive drug identification number requirements, which include bilingual [language],” said Bates.

The dosing is also slightly different for U.S. products.

“That needs to be considered when bringing it up to Canada, even though it’s the same product in terms of ingredients. It’s safe for U.S. kids, it can be safe for Canadian kids, but the drug facts and cautionary pieces are slightly different in the Canadian market.”

Health Canada working to get foreign products into the country amidst shortages

Health Canada recently approved the import of ibuprofen and acetaminophen from the U.S. and Australia, but only for use in hospitals. Distribution of ibuprofen is expected to begin by the end of the week, and work is underway to obtain more supply.

“I think that makes perfect sense from a supply chain perspective [to supply hospitals first]. You want to prioritize the most high-risk areas in the system. And then other parts of the system will catch up,” said Bates.

They are now reviewing whether those same imported products may be sold in drug stores and pharmacies.

“All necessary information, such as the information related to cautions and warnings, dosing directions, and ingredients, need to be communicated to ensure parents and caregivers clearly understand what medication they are giving their children,” read a statement from Health Minister’s Office.

Children's Advil

Children’s Advil products.

When it comes to having bilingual instructions on the packaging, the office of the health minister’s statement said language requirements will “not cause any delays in getting these critical medications to parents and caregivers.”

Health Canada tells CityNews they have been working with manufacturers on additional proposals to see foreign products being made available to pharmacies.

“The department has committed to reviewing proposals as a priority while assessing the safety, quality and efficacy of the drug proposed so that product can be imported as soon as possible,” read the statement from Health Canada.

Bates said, “I don’t think we have a choice,” when asked whether he believed it was a good idea to bring these products to Canada despite not having the bilingual labelling.

“We’re in an urgent situation. We’re entering into what we expect to be a nasty, severe cold and flu season on top of COVID outbreaks and respiratory illnesses that then lead to bacterial infections like strep throat and earaches, ear infections, and pneumonia that’s creating a perfect storm,” explained Bates.

“It’s a short-term measure, but I think the government should be acting urgently to bring up those products into the game market,” he added.

Bates tells CityNews he expects the winter to be “a bumpy road” regarding access to these medications.

“I would expect demand to remain pretty high. So, hopefully, importing and rationing the number per customer when we get supplies and things of that nature to avoid panic buying will help us. Still, I think it will be precarious throughout the winter.”

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