Some patients may not be able to get their prescriptions for paracetamol filled immediately as Covid-19 continues to affect supply of the widely-used pain reliever. (Stock image)
Some New Zealand pharmacies may run out of funded paracetamol tablets by the end of the month due to global supply issues caused by Covid-19.
The coronavirus pandemic has affected manufacturing and transportation around the world, leading to shortages of 500mg paracetamol tablets in particular, Pharmac said.
The drug-buying agency said expected shipments of paracetamol, a widely-used pain reliever, did not arrive last week and stock levels had dropped.
Pharmacy stocks were likely to run out at the end of July. It meant some patients may find their pharmacy cannot fill their prescription for paracetamol tablets immediately.
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Pharmac chief executive Sarah Fitt said the supplier was continuing to have stock issues due to decreased capacity at international manufacturing plants and difficulty obtaining flights out of India to transport stock. India is the world’s biggest supplier of generic drugs.
“We are working with the supplier to do everything possible to source more paracetamol tablets but understand that this may cause difficulties for some people.”
Supply of multiple drugs, including anaesthetic medicines propofol and suxamethonium, antidepressants, and contraceptives and paracetamol have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
More than 365 million funded paracetamol tablets are dispensed in New Zealand each year.
A temporary dispensing limit was placed on the medicine in March when Phamac was first advised of the potential supply issue.
The shortage relates only to paracetamol 500mg tablets prescribed by health professionals.
“We have no visibility of stock levels in the retail sector including in supermarkets,” Pharmac said in a statement.
The supply issue comes as new research reveals most New Zealanders have large quantities of painkillers stockpiled in their homes.
University of Otago postdoctoral fellow Dr Eeva-Katri Kumpula investigated the issue for a study funded by the Oakley Mental Health Research Foundation.
She surveyed 201 homes across New Zealand and found a large majority had readily accessible stocks of paracetamol, most of which had been obtained with a prescription.
Kumpula said the results were not surprising because the co-payment for a paracetamol prescription was only $5 for up to three months’ supply – or 360 grams of paracetamol in total.
One of Mel Abbott’s clients, Emma, suffers from complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) and had been taking up to 38 painkillers a day to manage her pain. She credits mind-body therapy for her now medication-free life.
Researchers estimated about a third of Kiwi households had at least 30g of paracetamol in their homes. Only 27 of the 201 households surveyed did not have any paracetamol products in their homes.
The study highlighted the importance of assessing how much paracetamol was really needed, Kumpula said.
“Ensuring people have sufficient access to paracetamol for pain management needs to be balanced with preventing unnecessary accumulation of unused stock in households to minimise inappropriate use such as for intentional self-poisoning.
“Prescribers and pharmacists need to be aware of the risks.”
Paracetamol was mostly safe when used as instructed, but it was important people checked how much they should use with their doctor or pharmacist, she said.
The study said there was a need for regular public initiatives to encourage people to return expired or unused medicines to pharmacies, so they could be disposed of safely.
In a separate study, Kumpula found most of the calls made to the Dunedin-based New Zealand National Poisons Centre related to paracetamol.
The centre fielded 64,358 inquiries in 2018 alone, a number similar to previous years.
Most calls were about young people being exposed to substances, and half of those involved children aged under 5.
Most incidents happened at the person’s own home, were unintentional, and could be treated at home or required no treatment.