Tamiflu supply falls short this season

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Tamiflu supply falls short this season

Korea’s medical authority said yesterday that it is quickly running out of its stocks of Tamiflu, the antiviral agent used to treat seasonal influenza, and is considering releasing some of its emergency reserves.

More and more pharmacies are running out of the pills, and many patients prescribed the medication have been left wandering from one drugstore to another.

On Jan. 29, a day before the Lunar New Year holiday, workers at a pharmacy in Apgujeong-dong said the store got a phone call from a patient asking if it had Tamiflu.

“When I said there were only two left, he asked me to put it on hold until his friend got there,” the pharmacist said. “I placed an additional order to the wholesaler, but they also ran out of it.”

According to Roche, the supplier of Tamiflu in Korea, the stock of about 300,000 doses was depleted from January to early February. Typically, that same amount lasts through the peak flu season, from September to April.

“The demand has increased much more than we anticipated,” said Kim Seo-hyeon, the deputy head of the Roche public relations team. “We are considering ordering additional doses [of Tamiflu] from the headquarters in Switzerland.”

Tamiflu was prescribed more frequently this year, medical experts noted, despite the fact that cases of the flu were less prevalent.

“The number of flu patients this year is only about 60 percent of the annual average,” said Kim Young-taek, the head of the infectious disease management department at the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The number of seasonal flu patients has only reached about 48 out of every 1,000 people this season, much less than the 60 to 70 people who fall ill during the peak seasons in average years.

Some in the medical industry have asserted that the shortage of medicine has resulted from doctors over-prescribing the treatment.

“In cases of the common cold, patients don’t need antiviral agents,” said a medical doctor who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But [patients] are increasingly asking for Tamiflu without checking whether it is the flu because of recent repeated broadcasts about the spread of influenza.”

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the country’s main medical authority, has considered releasing some of its emergency reserves. The center stocked up on Tamiflu, which could likely serve about 12.5 million people in case of pandemic influenza.

“We are considering distributing some of our reserves into the market first and retrieving the same amount back later from Roche,” said Bae Geun-lyang, the head of the infectious disease monitoring department at the organization.

The nation’s medical authority yesterday recommended that those vulnerable to seasonal illness, such as the elderly and infirm, should receive annual flu shots. To prevent the spread of viruses, it said, people should wash their hands often, cover their mouths when coughing, wear face masks and avoid crowded areas.

BY JANG JOO-YOUNG [bongmoon@joongang.co.kr]
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