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Why children's medications are in short supply in Maryland pharmacies when parents need it the most

Products like Children's Tylenol are hard to find on store shelves.
Kristen Mosbrucker
Products like Children's Tylenol are hard to find on store shelves.

Pediatric medications are not easily found on store shelves across Maryland when parents need relief for sick children the most, during an unusual cold and flu season. Even behind the pharmacy counter with a doctor’s authorization, parents say they are hunting for some medications at several retailers to no avail. All of this is happening when the state has some of the highest rates of pediatric illnesses in recent years, particularly with the outbreak of Respiratory Syncytial Virus, otherwise known as the common cold that’s been sending children to hospitals overwhelmed by the influx.

Antibiotics such as Amoxicillin and Azithromycin are in short supply, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Fever reducing drugs, flu medication Tamiflu, and other medications from inhalers full of albuterol to nebulizer treatments, which turn liquid medication into a breathable mist, are hard to find.

“I think it's very stressful for the providers [and] the caregivers,” said Lisa Polinsky, the assistant vice president for pharmacy services at LifeBridge Health, a regional hospital system which includes Sinai Hospital of Baltimore. “Physicians, nurses, pharmacists, everyone gets really anxious, if there's the potential that we would not have a needed medication for a patient. It does cause quite a bit of stress when, especially when you're having a surge of pediatric patients who may need an antibiotic for a secondary infection, or Tamiflu for influenza.”

There are 88 people in the hospital with Respiratory Syncytial Virus across the state, mostly children or older adults, during the largest outbreak in five years.

The outbreak of the virus appeared to peak when there were more than 250 people across Maryland hospitals a few weeks ago. But hospitalizations are not the only way communities are affected by the outbreak.

Many more children are battling illnesses similar to RSV and even bacterial infections in the past five years statewide who never show up in emergency rooms.

Medical experts say things could get worse as the weather gets colder and the flu and COVID pick up.

Sara Costa experienced the shortage firsthand. Her one-year-old son was recently diagnosed with an ear infection.

“Sadly, my first thought was ‘How do we get Amoxicillin?’” she said.

The doctor wrote a paper prescription to treat the ear infection, instead of phoning it into a specific pharmacy, because they knew Costa would have trouble finding the drug.

“We went to the pharmacy, and it's out of stock, the pharmacist looked at me like I was crazy,” Costa said. “When I asked, ‘Where can we get this?’ The pharmacist was just like, ‘You can't.’ And that's hard as a parent because you know what's best for your kid and you can't get it.”

Costa ended up getting help from a family member who is a pediatrician to track down a pharmacy with antibiotics.

Drug companies say they are working on increasing the supply of medications available to hospitals and pharmacies, but it takes time to build up inventory.

Carrie Adams, the chief operating officer at Meritus Medical, a hospital center in western Maryland, said that since diseases like RSV and the flu have not been as widespread in years past, companies have not been making as much medication.

“Manufacturers base their inventory for the next year on their previous year's utilization, and since the flu wasn't very prevalent last year the numbers are off,” Adams said. “Tamiflu as a perfect example, because we are seeing an increase in flu cases, the use of the most popular flu prescription drug is nearly 100%, higher than it was last year.”

Hospitals and pharmacies do have some alternative options. They can break down adult-sized doses into smaller ones for children or they can turn to other antibiotics in IV or injection form.

Medical experts say that at this point the shortage isn’t getting in the way of treating children, but they have concerns about further into the winter.

Doctors are stressing proper hygiene, vaccinations and staying home if you’re feeling sick to reduce the likelihood of spreading disease.

Scott is the Health Reporter for WYPR. @smaucionewypr
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