UPDATE: Health Canada releases 'previously quarantined' meds to ease chemo drug shortage

Health Canada has responded to concerns over a cancer drug shortage raised by a NEWSTALK 1010 listener.

The Federal health agency says it released on Monday roughly 3,600 previously quarantined vials of chemotherpy drug Fluorouracil in response to what officials at one GTA hospital called "a province-wide shortage."

These vials were quarantined as a precaution by the manufacturer last fall, over concerns about broken or compromised containers.

Doctors have now been instructed to check each vial before the drugs are administered.

MacKenzie Hospital in Richmond Hill confirmed to NEWSTALK 1010 on Monday morning that it is rescheduling FU-5 chemo treatments for as many as 35 patients after drugs like Irinotecan, Avastin, Leucovorin suddenly ran out.

Officials with MacKenzie Health say they're working on securing more of the drugs but blame a shortage of the mediciation that they say has been felt across Ontario.

In a written statement, the hospital says Cancer Care Ontario, the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care and Health Canada are working on a solution.

There's been no official comment on what led to the shortage, or how many patients across the province might be affected.

NEWSTALK 1010 LISTENER LEFT IN THE LURCH

Carmen Sebastian is a retired teacher and a Maple resident who also happens to be a NEWSTALK 1010 listener.

She has colon cancer and doctors have told her it will eventually take her life, but through a treatment plan that includes chemo, she's getting life-prolonging appointments at MacKenzie Hospital for about the last 18 months.

Sebastian tells NEWSTALK 1010 she got a voicemail message last Friday that said her treatment appointments will be suspended until further notice because the clinic is "out" of the medication she needs.

She claims she's been given no indication of how long she might have to wait for her drugs, or what is behind the apparent shortage.

To use Sebastian's words, the whole thing came, "out of the blue."

Her concern is that if she goes too long without her medication, that her cancer might get the upper hand again.

"I think my family would like to have me around for a little bit longer," she says.

Sebastian is frustrated that there isn't much available by the way of answers and she hopes that the Health Minister or perhaps Premier Kathleen Wynne might be able to help.

DRUG SHORTAGE IS NEWS TO ONTARIO'S HEALTH MINISTER

Ontario Health Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins told NEWSTALK 1010 on Monday morning that he wasn't aware of a cancer drug shortage.

He stressed that the healthcare system has provisions in place to make sure patients get the medications they need.

Hoskins went on tho describe drug shortages in Ontario as "a rare occurrence."

Cancer Care Ontario was not immediately available for comment an official told NEWSTALK 1010 that the agency is investigating the matter.

SHORTAGES OF IMPORTANT DRUGS ARE NOTHING NEW

Dr. Jacalyn Duffin has been studying medicine shortages in Canada for years.

Duffin is a professor at Queen's University in Kingston who studies the history of medicine. 

She's says the issue of important medications suddenly becoming scarce is a growing concern in this country. 

She believes there are as many as 15 possible causes for drug shortages in the Canadian health system, including everything from poor communication within the government, to pharmaceutical companies fighting the sale of generic medicines, to the retail prices of those generic drugs being too low to justify the expense of corporations to produce and warehouse it. 

Dr. Duffin adds that in the United States, the 3 cancer treatment drugs at the centre of the case of Carmen Sebastian have gone into shortage before.

She says they are proven medications and are realtively affordable but adds that's why they fit the bill of drugs than often become scarce. 

Dr. Duffin runs a website that examines the issues surrounding medication shortages, and gives patients a means to report and track drugs that have suddenly become difficult to find.

CanadaDrugShortage.com acts as a resource for anyone who is looking for insight into why their care has been interrupted or thrown into question. 

She says calls are mounting for the Federal government to draw up a list of "essential" medicines that hospitals would be required to keep in stock so that they're guaranteed to be there when Canadians need them. 

However, she says many polticians and big businesses have been reluctant to get on board.