Hospitals scramble as they face shortage of a vital cancer drug for children

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SACRAMENTO, Calif.  -- The University of California, Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center is one of the many cancer treatment centers nationwide dealing with a shortage of the generic drug Vincristine.

Vincristine is a standard treatment, primarily for children with leukemia, lymphoma, bone and brain cancers.

Around two weeks ago, drugmaker Pfizer faced production problems. The other maker of Vincristine, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, had stopped production for business reasons.

"It is an essential drug in almost all of our pediatric cancers,” Dr. Jong Hee Chung, a pediatric oncologist with UC Davis, said. “It's very unfortunate that a shortage like this would occur."

Chung said their pharmacy was able to stock up on the drug and that rescheduling treatments would enable the center to treat all its patients. However, she said it’s unknown what they will do for long-term supplies.

Federal drug officials said Pfizer would be stepping up production by the end of October, but supply chain gaps could prolong the shortage to the end of the year.

The nonprofit Children's Oncology Group said such shortages of life-saving drugs should never happen. They said recent Medicare rules allow reimbursement for no more than 6% of the average price of cancer drugs. A vial of Vincristine costs around $5.

That could explain why drug makers have stopped production in favor of more profitable drugs.

Some have suggested that the government begin stockpiling vital cancer drugs in case of shortages or import them from overseas where they are produced in higher quantities.

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