Zinc Shortage Puts Premature Babies at Risk as Drug Makers Scramble

Tuesday, 26 Mar 2013 01:14 PM

By Charlotte Moore

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An ongoing shortage of injectable zinc used by hospitals to protect and strengthen premature infants could be putting more than 100,000 babies at risk in the United States. Recently at least seven infants developed potentially life-threatening reactions after the supply ran out at the neonatal unit at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Hospitals around the country have been struggling to maintain supplies of injectable zinc after one maker of the drug, American Regent, halted manufacture because of contamination, according to American Society of Health System Pharmacists. A second manufacturer, Hospira, was unable to fill all the incoming orders for the zinc in a timely manner.

Injectable zinc is typically added to the intravenous total parental nutrition that doctors prescribe for premature babies.

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A serious zinc deficiency in babies can be fatal. Babies carried to term are generally born with an extra supply of zinc that comes from the mother during the last phase of pregnancy. Premature babies don’t get this natural shot of zinc and are therefore at greater risk of falling prey to problems as a result of the deficiency.

The incident at the D.C. hospital is not the first. In December, three preemies developed severe diaper rash, skin erosions around their mouths, and blistering lesions on their hands and feet. After a battery of tests, doctors connected the problems to zinc deficiency. A similar situation occurred at a hospital in Texas where four premature infants suffered zinc deficiency-related health problems.

The shortage does not only affect premature infants. Nearly 400,000 people around the country are prescribed total parental nutrition either in hospitals or they use the solution at home.

Health officials are working with drug manufacturers which are required to notify the Food and Drug Administration as soon as possible when they expect problems with supplies, and hospitals are working together to share supplies in emergency cases.

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Manufacturers said they are working to make more injectable zinc available. Hospira estimated a resupply would be available after April.

Related stories:

Hospira Pulls Forecast after FDA Action; Shares Slide

Premature Babies Have Higher Psychiatric Risk

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