Question Period: Drug Shortages

By: The Hon. Jane Cordy

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Lebreton Flats and Canadian geese, Ottawa

Hon. Jane Cordy: My question is for Senator Gold.

Senator Gold, as we enter cold and flu season, on top of the increasing COVID numbers that we are seeing, families are experiencing an alarming rise in children’s illnesses across the country. The Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario here in Ottawa has reported that between the months of May and September, the hospital saw the busiest months in the organization’s 50-year history. Officials with the hospital are pointing to a surge in flu and COVID-19 cases. They have seen about 10 times more patients with respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, now than before the pandemic. The virus, which disproportionately affects small children, features symptoms including fever, runny nose and coughing, and can lead to difficulty breathing.

As parents try to alleviate these symptoms for their children with medications from the local pharmacy, they are often finding empty shelves. Last week, Health Canada released a statement recognizing the shortage of infant and children’s acetaminophen and ibuprofen, but gave little to no details about how they plan to address this situation. Health Canada says the shortages are because of an increase in demand, but shelves have been empty for months, Senator Gold.

Why are the shelves empty? Also, Senator Gold, could you provide us with details on how Health Canada plans to increase the supply of these much-needed products and get them to families who most need them?

Hon. Marc Gold (Government Representative in the Senate): Thank you for your question and for raising this very preoccupying situation for families across the country.

The government shares the concerns of many parents and caregivers about their families and their inability to find pediatric analgesics such as those you have mentioned.

I’m advised that Minister Duclos and Health Canada have spoken to several manufacturers, including Johnson & Johnson, Haleon and Pharmascience to reiterate the urgent need to collaborate to find immediate solutions to this shortage so that parents and caregivers can have the medicines they need to take care of their children.

Companies that supply Canada have also been provided pathways to import foreign products, and the government is reaching out to additional suppliers to attempt to fill the gap.

Health Canada has issued a public advisory that offers parents and caregivers advice and important safety information. And as the health and safety of children remain the government’s top priorities, all options to solve this shortage are on the table.

Senator Cordy: Thank you, Senator Gold. I am very pleased to hear that Minister Duclos is speaking to the manufacturers and that they are looking for other producers for those types of medication for families.

The assumption would be that demand for such products would be very similar to that for the same products south of the border, but anecdotal evidence — and that is people telling stories to the media — from families who have been to the United States report that they are not seeing the same empty shelves in the U.S. as we are seeing here in Canada.

What is the reason for the drastic shortage of infant and children’s products in Canada? What are the barriers that are specific to Canada and Canadian distributors that are preventing these products from getting to Canadian shelves, and what will Health Canada do to ease these barriers so that we will have products? I am really pleased that you told us earlier that Minister Duclos is speaking to providers, but it seems that if we are having shortages in Canada, very often it is reflected in the United States or the reverse. But that does not seem to be the case. Is there a reason for that? If there is, can we work at finding solutions?

Senator Gold: Thank you for the supplementary question. I do not know the answer as to why — at least anecdotally — there appears to be less of a shortage south of the border than here. My understanding is that Dr. Supriya Sharma, Health Canada’s Chief Medical Advisor, is of the view — and it is indeed confirmed — that the drug shortage is expected to be resolved soon, as manufacturers of these analgesics have significantly increased their production to meet domestic demand. As I mentioned before, I understand that the minister has recently spoken with a number of manufacturers who are committed to maintaining their increased production capacity over the coming months.

I do not want to speculate — that is not helpful — but we do have labelling requirements in Canada. If that is, in fact, one limiting factor for medications that come from outside of the country, I have been told that work will be done in partnership with providers to add information to the labels in both official languages to ensure that patients and caregivers have the information they need to understand the medication they are taking.

I will make some inquiries, senator, and be happy to report back.

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