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Paramedics Face Potentially Deadly Shortage Of Drugs

BOSTON (CBS) - Many of the drugs paramedics need in life and death situations are in short supply.

WBZ has learned some local EMTs are asking permission to use expired drugs because they feel they are better than nothing.

"We are seeing a rapid rise of shortages of life saving and emergency medications as we have never seen before," said Jonathan Epstein of Northeast Emergency Medical Services. "It's getting worse."

Epstein oversees emergency medical services in about four dozen facilities north of Boston. He says calls about drug shortages that used to come every couple of months now come daily.

One local ambulance company called because they were running out of their third substitute for a drug used to treat seizures.

Scenarios like that scare Cathy Rapsas. Her daughter Mary has been transported to the hospital many times due to daily seizures. "She would die," says Rapsas. "Mary's already gone into cardiac arrest once and I just don't want to think about it."

Drugs for cardiac emergencies, severe pain, even EpiPens for kids are also in short supply.

Sometimes the drugs might be available, but only in different doses, concentrations, or packaging. When a paramedic has to act quickly, those changes can make things confusing.

Dr. Sophia Dyer, the medical director for Boston EMS, explained, "The more changes you make, put into the system, that's a dynamic environment and the more risk for drug errors there is."

Boston EMS has been proactive in obtaining drugs and training staff about these changes, but Dr. Dyer is concerned about what's around the corner. "These issues seem to be coming up a little bit more frequently. As we start to draw on alternative medications, I do worry that we will have shortages of those as well."

Today, the Food and Drug Administration is tracking 250 drugs in short supply. In 1997, there were just five.

At a congressional hearing, an FDA official conceded this is a public health crisis.

Here in Massachusetts, Epstein worries that, "Should this continue, with the medications getting more and more scarce, the potential for real danger does exist."

No one has pinpointed an exact cause of these shortages, but Epstein agrees with others that many of these older drugs don't have the profit margins of new drugs. He theorizes that the pharmaceutical companies aren't as motivated to manufacture them.

The pharmaceutical industry has said over-regulation by the federal government is one of the factors contributing to the shortages.

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