Tuesday 17 October 2017

The risk of an over-reliance on one supplier of vital drugs was signalled two years ago

Several public and private hospitals that administer chemotherapy are heavily reliant on one company, Baxter Healthcare, for their supplies. (Stock photo)
Several public and private hospitals that administer chemotherapy are heavily reliant on one company, Baxter Healthcare, for their supplies. (Stock photo)
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

Chemotherapy is a staple of thousands of patients' cancer treatment. It is used to kill cancer cells.

It stops cancer cells reproducing, which prevents them from growing and spreading in the body.

The revelation that hundreds of patients who are relying on chemotherapy drugs, which are administered through a tube intravenously, are now facing a shortage of the life-saving medicines is deeply worrying.

The kind of chemotherapy medicine they need is compounded in sterile machines and made up in bottles or boxes.

The correct dose has to be prepared according to what doctors prescribe for their patient.

Around three-quarters of compounded chemotherapy products are made in-house in hospitals. But their capacity is limited and the numbers of people diagnosed with cancer is rising by 3pc annually.

Several public and private hospitals that administer chemotherapy are heavily reliant on one company, Baxter Healthcare, for their supplies.

The worst-hit tend to be smaller hospitals.

Baxter has been experiencing technical problems for the past two weeks that have disrupted supplies, forcing doctors to readjust treatments for patients with very serious diseases.

Warnings about the risks involved in relying on just one supplier were sounded two years ago.

At that stage, another shortage emerged when Fannin Compounding, an Irish company, developed difficulties with its production equipment.

It was one of two suppliers of compounded chemotherapy, along with Baxter.

Fannin had to take one of its isolators used to produce the chemotherapy products out of commission. At the time it was in the middle of being taken over by Baxter.

The takeover was cleared by the Consumer Protection Commission despite a caution that it could lead to a significant reduction in the commercial supply of chemotherapy products to hospitals here. The companies argued that Fannin was going to close anyway.

At the time of the last scare patients had their treatments readjusted or had to travel to larger centres in the region - all of which are already under pressure.

While the hope is that a short-term difficulty is not going to impact a patient's prognosis, the fear is that if this is prolonged it could have more significant outcomes. At the same time patients who are fighting the illness are faced with an unnecessary psychological burden.

Relying mostly on one company to supply these essential products seems to be particularly risky.

It's time for the HSE to re-examine the system it has in place, particularly as the incidence of cancer rises.

Irish Independent

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