Pfizer drug shortage causes issues for syphilis treatment

Drug shortages tied to manufacturing issues are a common occurrence. Healthcare providers have learned to deal with them all of the time. But an interruption at a Pfizer plant is creating a special problem because Pfizer is the only company making a particular antibiotic that is the only drug approved for treating syphilis in pregnant women.

The drugmaker last month sent a letter to customers saying that supply interruption due to a “manufacturing delay” would mean Pfizer would be able to ship only about 30% of normal monthly demand of Bicillin L-A until July. The drug giant said it was recommending that in the meantime its wholesalers put the drug on allocation and that providers use alternative drugs when possible.

That, in turn, led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend that healthcare providers limit the drug’s use to only patients with syphilis and make sure they use only the recommended doses. The agency said if providers reach “a critical supply level of three weeks or less” they should notify Pfizer about getting an emergency supply.

Dr. Sarah Kidd, CDC medical epidemiologist within the division of STD prevention, tells NPR that the shortage comes at a particularly difficult time because there has been a rise in the number of syphilis cases in pregnant women in the last several years. She said while the disease can be transferred from a mother to her fetus, that can be prevented if the mother is treated with Bicillin L-A

Shortages of essential drugs tied to manufacturing problems have become relatively common in recent years. Several years ago, both Sanofi ($SNY) Pasteur and Merck & Co. ($MRK) ran into manufacturing issues for the BCG vaccine used to treat tuberculosis and bladder cancer, leaving some cancer patients to have worry about the progression of their disease while the companies got problems worked out.

Johnson & Johnson's ($JNJ) Janssen unit struggled to maintain ready supplies of its ovarian cancer treatment Doxil for several years after a former Boehringer Ingelheim plant ran into regulatory issues and eventually closed. It eventually got another manufacturer and the problem was resolved.

- heres the Pfizer letter
- read the CDC recommendations
- more from NPR

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