A SEVERE shortage of cancer and anaesthetic drugs is looming in Australia following a similar drought in the US, health experts warn.
Last year was among the worst on record for drug shortfalls in the US, which is a major medicine supplier.
A recent report by the US Food and Drug Administration reveals there were 196 drug shortages in 2010, up more than 200 per cent from 2006.
The report, completed just before the end of last year, focused on dwindling supplies of cancer, anaesthetic and anti-infective drugs such as penicillin.
It said physicians might have to ration supplies, delay treatments or use other medicines that could result in side effects.
Health experts fear recent shortages in Australia point to a worrying trend in which patients are increasingly forced to seek alternative or inferior treatments.
Gary Richardson, chairman of the Medical Oncology Group of Australia, said financial incentives for local medicine manufacturers could help reduce shortfalls.
He said supplies often dwindled when generic producers began replicating medicines with expired patents, causing prices to drop.
Decreased profit margins deterred some manufacturers from producing cheap medicines, Associate Professor Richardson said.
Machinery maintenance disrupted supply in other cases. The Age reported this month that hundreds of cancer patients could be denied access to a crucial cancer drug, Doxil, because its US manufacturer suspended production.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration said it did not stockpile medicines but worked with the pharmaceutical industry to find alternative sources when necessary.
A TGA spokeswoman said the medicine supply system worked well in Australia.
Emergency doctor Stephen Parnis, Victorian vice-president of the Australian Medical Association, said increasing demand for some medicines was putting pressure on supplies. "It is unsettling to know that drugs we have relied on for decades as a secure source of supply are no longer as certain," he said.
The penicillin shortage that rocked the health sector last year highlighted the "tenuous nature" of medicine supply, Dr Parnis said.
Andrew Mulcahy, president of the Australian Society of Anaesthetists, said the TGA needed to improve its strategy for approving alternative suppliers when medicine stocks were threatened.
He said a recent shortage of anaesthetic drug Thiopentone, often used as an alternative to standard anaesthetics, highlighted the supply problems.
"That's a real concern. It's not a new drug," Dr Mulcahy said.
Gillian Sharratt, executive of the NSW Therapeutic Advisory Group, said medication shortages were a continuing problem for Australian hospitals.
The group is an independent association that includes pharmacologists, pharmacists and other clinicians.
Ms Sharratt said hospitals lacked the money and space to store medicines in sufficient quantities to ensure long-term supply.
The Victorian Therapeutic Advisory Group did not return calls from The Age.