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How clinics in the Philadelphia area are dealing with a national shortage of penicillin

The skyline is reflected in the Schuylkill River as the sun rises over Philadelphia.
Matt Rourke
Associated Press
The skyline is reflected in the Schuylkill River as the sun rises over Philadelphia.

The U.S. has a shortage of a particular injectable form of the antibiotic penicillin that could last for the rest of the year. Doctors are changing their policies to make sure patients who really need that particular antibiotic can get it.

Around two weeks ago, Nemours Children’s Hospital in Florida was close to running out of this kind of penicillin. Director of Pharmacy Angela Folger said they were down to two doses, which is just enough for two patients.

“We got very close to running out,” she said. “We worked with our infectious disease colleagues to determine what alternatives there might be and which patients would be most critically in need of this medication so that we could conserve the supply we had.”

They finally got more of the antibiotic from Pfizer, the manufacturer. She said the hospital uses this antibiotic to treat, among other things, a particular type of strep infection that if untreated,could lead to heart disease down the road.

Now the hospital is closely tracking how much penicillin they are using, and recommends doctors look for safe alternatives for their patients if possible. For instance, some patients can takea different antibiotic in the form of a tablet that they swallow.

Folger said the Nemours locations in the Delaware Valley have similar issues as well. Nemours also runs a children’s hospital in Delaware, as well as clinics in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

She said doctors and other medical staff are better prepared for dealing with drug shortages, after much more severe shortages when the pandemic began a few years ago.

“Several years ago … it was hard because the providers didn’t necessarily understand why we weren’t able to obtain the medications that they’ve always used,” she said. “I think in this current environment now post-COVID, I think everyone kind of understands the supply chain issues.”

Pfizersaid the current shortage is the result of more patients needing the antibiotic, and that the shortage could last for the rest of the year. In adults, it is a treatment for syphilis. In the U.S., reported cases of syphilis have surged in the past few years, andcontinue to rise.

The Philadelphia Health Department still has a healthy supply of the antibiotic, said Lenore Asbel, medical director of the department’s clinics that treat sexually transmitted diseases. She said that as soon as they heard about the shortage, they recommended doctors treat patients with alternatives if they can do it safely. However, she said it is a critical treatment for pregnant patients who have syphilis.

“We want to make sure that people who are pregnant are treated with penicillin because penicillin is able to cure [syphilis] in utero,” she said. “In other words, we can reduce cases of congenital syphilis by treating with penicillin in pregnancy.”

In recent years,cases of syphilis in Philadelphia surged, just like in the rest of the U.S. Asbel saidthat trend continues.