Chemo costs rising due to drug shortage

Most chemotherapy patients in Alberta will be switched to the anti-nausea pill Ondansetron as Alberta Health Services deals with a shortage of the intravenous form of the drug.

Most chemotherapy patients in Alberta will be switched to the anti-nausea pill Ondansetron as Alberta Health Services deals with a shortage of the intravenous form of the drug.

The substitution means cancer patients will have to pay more for relief.

Quebec drug company Sandoz Canada, which sells to the United States, is in the process of upgrading production lines after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration discovered deficiencies during an inspection last fall.

On Feb. 15, Sandoz notified provinces that the supply of 84 injectable drugs would be reduced.

James Silvius, AHS medical director for pharmacy services, said AHS has been looking for other drug companies to fill the void, but was unable to find an additional source for Ondansetron.

AHS is monitoring the inventory of Ondansetron and patients who have trouble swallowing pills, for example those with head and neck cancer, will continue to receive the injectable drug.

“What we’re trying to do is reserve the supply we do have for those situations where they truly, truly can’t take it as an oral,” Silvius said on Wednesday.

Injection of Ondansetron is done prior to chemotherapy to reduce nausea, a common side effect. Now patients will take a pill prior to arriving for chemotherapy.

“The nice thing about Ondansetron is that the oral version is just as good as the IV, injectable version. It’s just a different form. The downside is the effect takes longer to kick in than if you give an injection.”

Cancer patients already receive prescriptions for Ondansetron pill to use at home. Now they will get an extra dose to be taken before treatment.

Silvius said the maximum cost to patients for an extra dose is $15, or under $5 for people with drug coverage under their health insurance.

“Fortunately, it’s covered by most insurance plans.”

Silvius said Sandoz is increasing the allocation of a number of its drugs starting Friday, but Ondansetron is not one of them.

“We have been advised by Sandoz to expect to be short on this particular drug until early summerish. We do not have anything definitive from them at this point.”

He said the pill form is widely available.

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