Monday 23 October 2017

Cancer patients go without life-saving chemotherapy for a week due to delay

Treatment for at least 60 people reduced or postponed as several hospitals struggle with shortage

Calling for back-up in supplies: Oncologist John Crown Picture: Damien Eagers
Calling for back-up in supplies: Oncologist John Crown Picture: Damien Eagers
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

At least 60 cancer patients have had their chemotherapy treatment postponed or reduced for up to a week as several hospitals struggle to cope with a shortage of chemotherapy drugs.

The Irish Independent understands that scores of patients around the country, who need to have chemotherapy intravenously as part of the care prescribed by their oncologist, are suffering delays. In Sligo, 17 cancer patients are without the vital chemotherapy until some time next week.

It follows revelations that Baxter Healthcare - the only commercial supplier of this form of compounded chemotherapy in the country - has had to stop production because of manufacturing problems for the past two weeks. It will be at least the middle of next week before it can resume service to public and private hospitals.

Asked about the impact of the shortage on a patient's prognosis, a number of doctors stressed that the best care involves giving the proper dose of chemotherapy at the right time as prescribed in a treatment plan. Although many of the bigger hospitals have in-house compounding facilities, they are under major pressure as they rely on the additional supplies from Baxter Healthcare to cater for all patients.

Doctors have had to give several patients lower doses, administer alternative therapies or put treatment on hold.


Dr Ray McDermott, oncologist in Tallaght Hospital and St Vincent's Hospital, criticised the reliance on one commercial supplier.

Oncologist John Crown, of St Vincent's, warned that an international company, providing a crucial public service, "should have sufficient back-up systems to guarantee supply".

A spokeswoman for the HSE told the Irish Independent yesterday evening that Dr Jerome Coffey, head of cancer services, was not available for comment.

It is the latest crisis to face Health Minister Simon Harris, who yesterday expressed hope that supplies would be restored early next week.

"The HSE and most importantly the National Cancer Control Programme are monitoring this extraordinarily carefully," he said. "We have hospitals working together on an inter-hospital basis to provide each other with drugs."

The National Cancer Control Programme has assured the Department of Health that all hospitals are examining their patient chemotherapy schedules based on individual clinical needs and priority.

The minister said it was important to acknowledge "there is only one external provider to this country and that is Baxter".

He said he would ask the HSE to continue to keep that under review. "If there are more people and more companies that can provide this drug, we need to provide it here," he said.

Patients in Sligo were among the worst affected. A spokeswoman for the hospital said it had an internal drug compounding facility but this was closed until next Tuesday for essential maintenance.

"Due to the drug supply issue, the hospital has had to defer treatment for 17 patients," a spokesperson said. "Sligo University Hospital regrets the inconvenience and distress caused to patients."

The Irish Cancer Society said it was worried some cancer patients may not be getting the treatment they need because of a shortage of chemotherapy drugs.

A spokeswoman for Baxter Healthcare said: "We have sent a team of operators to the UK to help produce products that can be sent to Ireland."

Irish Independent

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