Supply of popular flu drug limited in Western Pa.
Finding relief from a harsh season of influenza might take a little extra time and a lot more patience this year, Western Pennsylvania pharmacists and doctors warn.
Just a few weeks into the height of the season, drugstores across the region are reporting short-term shortages of the popular anti-viral treatment Tamiflu, which can shorten painful symptoms by several days.
Tracking down the liquid form of the prescription drug, which tops $120 in cost for the uninsured, can mean calling several retailers to find someone with enough in stock, doctors and pharmacists said. Some stores might run out for a couple of days at a time, a trend reported from Dallas to Washington.
“As far as I know, anybody who needs it hasn’t been unable to get it. It’s just more of a pain than it should be” for some patients, said Dr. John O’Neill, an emergency medicine physician at Allegheny General Hospital in the North Side.
Still, O’Neill said the hospital is careful to dole out the medicine for confirmed and very likely flu cases. He said outpatients probably face bigger hurdles in finding Tamiflu, which also appears in capsule form and eases illness severity by inhibiting growth of the flu virus.
Approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration in 1999, the treatment works best when taken no more than two days after flu symptoms appear. Intermittent shortages have emerged over the past decade during periods of peak demand, especially in robust flu seasons.
California-based drugmaker Genentech acknowledged “spot shortages may occur in local areas” as the 2014-15 season threatens to rank among the most severe in years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta urges high-risk people, including the elderly and young children, to ask their doctors about Tamiflu and other anti-viral drugs if they have symptoms such as fever, body aches and coughs.
“Flu activity is unpredictable and, as the manufacturer of Tamiflu, we do our best each season to anticipate flu spikes and work with our network of national distributors and pharmacies to provide Tamiflu to those areas of the country that need it most,” Genentech spokeswoman Austine Graff said in a statement.
Graff said the company was “expediting new supplies of Tamiflu to local pharmacies affected by the increased demand,” including the Mid-Atlantic region. She said pharmacists can mix capsules into a liquid if they run out of the pre-made liquid formula.
Statewide and local health reports show an explosion of flu cases that began in December, which the CDC said could contribute to the Tamiflu shortages. The surge is continuing into the new year, said Dr. Donald M. Yealy, UPMC chairman of emergency medicine.
“This is a bit earlier than we’re used to seeing it. The last few years have been early — this is just slightly more early,” Yealy said.
Doctors confirmed 10,117 flu cases statewide from Sept. 28 through Tuesday, roughly on par with trends in the severe season of 2012-13. The reported cases include 16 flu-related deaths, including two in Allegheny County.
“We’ve had more hospitalizations this flu season than we had all of last season already,” said Dr. Kristen Mertz, a medical epidemiologist with the Allegheny County Health Department. She said the county has logged more than 1,900 confirmed cases since late September, just several hundred shy of the full-year total reported for the last cycle.
Confirmed cases reflect a fraction of the annual outbreak, which sickens 600,000 to 2.4 million Pennsylvanians a year, according to the state Department of Health. Many fall sick between October and May.
Yealy and other doctors stressed that most of those people will not need Tamiflu, which they said has generated only limited data to illustrate how well it prevents fatalities and infections.
“The amount of people who will have a clear benefit from Tamiflu is actually fairly small. Most people don’t need the therapy, and therefore the shortage doesn’t have a clinical impact,” Yealy said of his observations.
The treatment can be more helpful in people with medical complications, Yealy said. He and Mertz urged people to stay home if they come down with flu-like symptoms.
“There’s still a lot of flu out there. We’re really encouraging people to get vaccinated,” Mertz said.
Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.