Melanie Paradis: The Children's Tylenol shortage is getting ridiculous
Governments have tried to blame parents. I call bullshit.
By: Melanie Paradis
Recently I had to go to another country to buy children’s medicine because Canada has normalized dysfunction, and no one notices until there’s a crisis.
There has been a nation-wide infant and children’s pain medication shortage for months. During that time, I’ve been trying to secure the supply my family needs with very limited success. My 16-month-old son was diagnosed with tonsillitis, conjunctivitis (pink eye), and an ear infection a few weeks ago, and I was given a prescription for infant pain medication, but I still could not get it from the major pharmacy in my town.
If you haven’t been following this situation, here’s the crash course.
There has been a shortage of commercially prepared liquid acetaminophen and ibuprofen in Canada for many months. Store shelves have been absolutely bare. When pharmacies do get it in, they keep it behind the counter or post signs limiting customers to one or two boxes each. The shipments arrive unpredictably and with dramatically fewer units — sometimes only two small boxes for a store.
This all started with some supply chain issue that limited production. To be honest, I have yet to find a detailed account of what the issue is exactly. None of the companies that make up the supply chain are willing to answer basic questions. We know there is a bottleneck somewhere, but not where, and the participants seem content to keep it that way. If the pandemic reminded us we need more domestic manufacturing for essentials, clearly that has not happened for kids’ medicines.
Compounding the situation is a significant increase in demand due to high levels of illness among children over the summer and early fall. That included everything from worse than usual hand-foot-mouth disease, an earlier start to cold and flu season, and, of course, COVID. But the real culprit appears to be an especially bad respiratory infection called RSV. This October, the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) admitted 10 times more kids with RSV than they did in typical Octobers pre-pandemic.
Early in the shortage, most pharmacies still had industrial-sized jugs of liquid pain relievers behind the counter that they could dispense into smaller bottles. Months later, that supply has been largely exhausted, and pharmacies are working to restock. Pharmacies that are allowed to make compounds have been able to grind up adult pain relievers and mix it with a suspension fluid. But I have yet to find a pharmacist who will do it, and depending on the province, you may need a prescription. Even when I had a prescription for my kid, I couldn’t get it made. Also, apparently it doesn’t taste great, so good luck getting your fussy kid to take it in the middle of the night.
Parents know the best medicine for your sick kid is a good night’s sleep. And if a high fever spikes, acetaminophen helps keep it from getting dangerous. But now we have a situation where kids are filling emergency rooms across the country in part because there is no medicine available to allow their parents to safely manage their symptoms at home. At a time when our health-care system is already an omnishambles, what started as a shortage is now a crisis.
Health Canada recently responded by saying they were making it easier for suppliers to bring children’s medicines in from other countries, where there aren’t any shortages, and just re-label the boxes in English and French. But this doesn’t seem to be happening with any urgency because the shelves remain empty.
At Thanksgiving, a neighbour’s daughter returned from California with a suitcase stuffed full of kids’ medicines. Friends are mailing bottles to one another across the country when they find it. And while I wait for a Canadian Amazon order placed on September 16th for two boxes of infant Tylenol that no longer has an estimated shipping date, if you know someone with a U.S. post-office box, they can order it from American Amazon and drive it across the border like a legal drug mule for the grape-flavoured good stuff.
But you can’t order it from American suppliers and ship it into Canada because the labelling isn’t bilingual.
A few weeks ago, my son woke up in the early hours with an uncomfortable cough while we were visiting my family in Niagara Falls. We didn’t have any medicine with us, so in the dark of the night, rocking our crying son, we hatched a plan.
It was time to go to America. We would ride at dawn.
I had planned to go to several stores, possibly in several towns, to find a few boxes so we wouldn’t have to worry for a while. This, it turned out, was entirely unnecessary. When we arrived at the Tops in Lewiston, N.Y., the shelves looked totally normal. Pre-COVID normal! They didn’t even have signs limiting quantity! Instead, they had multiple brands, flavours and sizes, including a jumbo bottle that reminded me of the super-XL Budweiser beer can with “Freedom” printed on it that I got at the Garth Brooks concert in Buffalo this summer. I dubbed this jumbo infant pain medication bottle the Freedom size.
We got what we needed, including some medication for a friend who had run out and badly needed us to mail her supply, but we decided to go check out Rite Aid too. Again, utterly normal: plenty of inventory of everything. There the pharmacist commented that he had heard about the shortage in Canada and thought it was crazy because they didn’t have any problems there, fewer than 10 km from the border.
We got back in the car and when the Canadian Border Services Agent asked us if we had anything to declare, we simply said, “We stocked up on children’s Tylenol.” He gave a knowing nod, handed us our passports, and that was all. The entire trip took an hour.
It’s great we got what we need; hooray for us. But what the hell is wrong with Canada that this cross-border expedition even needed to take place? This shortage started in early summer and now a return of consistent supply isn’t anticipated until at least December.
So, of course, the only thing left to do is blame parents. The Toronto Star recently claimed consumer hoarding was “the real reason for the Children’s Tylenol shortage.” Just a few days ago, the Government of Canada published guidance on the shortage, with words in bold: “Only buy what you need.” They’ve been saying that since August.
I call bullshit.
For months, Canadians bought these half-assed explanations, but they just don’t add up. For one thing, kids are just as sick in the U.S. right now. The RSV situation might even be worse in some U.S. states than it is here. Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Maryland has pitched a tent outside the ER to accommodate overflow. And the Connecticut Children’s Hospital are contemplating setting up a field hospital and may call in the National Guard and FEMA. Yet there is absolutely no shortage of children’s medicines in America.
Canada has normalized dysfunction. Stop letting industry and government leaders pass the buck. It’s time for real answers and action. The requirements for bilingual packaging must be dropped in a crisis, and we urgently need more domestic production of essentials like kids’ medicine, especially when shortages directly stress already scarce health-care resources. Stop blaming parents. Start fixing the problem.
Melanie Paradis is a veteran Conservative campaigner and the president of Texture Communications.
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