Most parents in Canada who need specialty infant formula to feed their babies are now required to order infant formula through a pharmacy due to a voluntary Health Canada policy aimed at rationing limited supplies amid a nationwide shortage.
In June, Health Canada issued national recommendations suggesting that pharmacists dispense hypoallergenic baby formula “to ensure it can be distributed evenly,” according to a Health Canada statement made available to Global News.
Since then, the practice has been rolled out across the country as the availability of certain types of specialty formulas remains limited, Health Canada says.
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“The recommendation to order hypoallergenic infant formula at the pharmacy counter has been implemented to effectively manage the limited supply and ensure the infants who need it receive it,” said Andre Gagnon, a spokesman for Health Canada.
“This action allows Health Canada and its provincial and territorial level colleagues to gain a detailed understanding of national care and quickly adjust allocation when an urgent need is identified.”
The regular formula remains widely available in Canada and does not require special over-the-counter access at pharmacies, Health Canada added.
The specialty nutrition shortage was prompted by the February closure of Abbott Nutrition, a major infant formula manufacturing facility in Michigan that was shut down following a massive recall of some of its products.
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Most of the baby food available in Canada comes from the United States. Abbott Nutrition makes the popular formula brands Similac and Alimentum.
After resuming formula production in May, Abbott was forced to close again on June 16 due to damage from a severe storm. The facility resumed production last month and is gradually ramping up, with an initial focus on specialty formulas.
It is expected to take several months before the products are available to consumers in usual quantities, according to Health Canada.
Meanwhile, the federal government purchased shipments of imported hypoallergenic formulas in July, some of which were not previously sold in Canada, largely due to Canadian labeling regulations.
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Those shipments have stabilized the national supply, Health Canada says, but the situation will remain tight until Abbott’s Michigan facility returns to full production capacity.
“Health Canada therefore maintains its recommendation that hypoallergenic formulas should be available to families through pharmacy counter order, and continues to emphasize the need to stock specialized formulas for those who need them.”
Danielle Paes, chief pharmacist officer at the Canadian Pharmacists Association, says the deficiency only affects infants who have allergies to regular formula or soy-based products, which isn’t an overwhelming number of people. But for the affected families, the last few months of limited supplies have been stressful.
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“It can be very stressful for parents and carers and that is why we are trying to make sure we have everything to support them and to make sure pharmacies and pharmacists have everything they need to support families and carers to get through this navigating this is important,” said Paes.
“We’ve worked very closely with Health Canada to ensure we can get the information to anyone who needs it.”
Families who need heavily hydrolyzed and amino acid-based formulas don’t need a prescription to access these products, unless they need one for provincial coverage – and pharmacies have worked to ensure new brands launched during the Failing to have been imported are covered.
But anyone who needs to purchase hypoallergenic formula for their infants is urged to order ahead of time from their local pharmacy, as Health Canada has asked pharmacies not to hold excess stock to maintain supplies.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has created a multitude of supply chain issues that have led to many product and drug shortages over the past two and a half years, so this is not a new situation for pharmacists, says Justin Bates, CEO of the Ontario Pharmacists Association.
Pharmacists are now having more conversations with parents to help them choose their options and ensure they have access to the formula products that are best for their infants, he said.
This is a “huge source of stress” for many parents and caregivers who rely on specialty formulas to feed their babies, he said.
“You are dealing with a very vulnerable population in the infant cohort and the nutrition is obviously massive in the early years so people are concerned is this the bottom in terms of supply or are we going to see more supply shortages ? ” Bates said.
Keeping special formulas behind pharmacy counters will prevent hoarding and ensure those products are accessible to those who need them most, he added.
“If people are hoarding, you can’t make it available to everyone who needs it. So we do a staggering and make sure the supply chain is stable so everyone who needs it gets it.”
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