WASHINGTON - It sounds like a Third World problem: Hospitals are rationing, bartering and hoarding critical nutrients that premature infants need to survive. But it's a problem that's happening in the Washington area and in other major cities across the country.
In her article, "Children Are Dying," published in the May issue of Washingtonian Magazine, reporter Alexandra Robbins reports the nutrient shortage has been going on for about three years now.
"This is a national emergency, this is a public health crisis and the government isn't doing anything about it," Robbins says.
She tells WTOP that nutrient shortages come and go by the week, and the most commonly-depleted drugs include calcium, zinc, phosphorus, magnesium and selenium.
The shortages pose the highest threat for premature babies in neonatal intensive care units because these patients are born without nutrient reserves.
"There was a baby whose heart stopped because of lack of phosphorus," Robbins says. "Across the Washington area, I've heard of plenty of babies with calcium deficiencies who are experiencing poor bone growth and developmental problems because of this lack of nutrients."
According to Robbins, hospitals are keeping this problem quiet and are not telling patients, or parents of patients, because they do not want to cause a panic.
Her research states that there is a record high shortage among 300 different drug, vitamin and trace-elements in the U.S.
Yet amidst the shortage of vitamins that premature babies are struggling to receive, some are managing to get ahold of the highly-pursued nutrients, Robbins says. Only, these people are using the drugs recreationally, to cure hangovers and keep a youthful look.
"You'll hear about this trend called the vitamin drip, where celebrities, models, musicians and athletes are getting IV nutrition delivered intravenously because it's supposed to reenergize them, it's supposed to beautify them," says Robbins, who traced where the nutrients are coming from and found that in some cases, they are coming from the same limited pool used to supply hospitals.
"So essentially, premature babies are suffering because they can't get access to the same nutrients that some celebrities are using to pretty-up before a photo shoot," says Robbins, who adds that people are also using the drugs for a hangover cure.
Why are celebrities getting the drugs, and not the infants in critical condition? Robbins explains there is no centralized database to direct the nutrients to the people who need them the most.
"(Hospital staff) are heartbroken. They can't believe this is going on, that they can't get access to these very basic nutrients," Robbins says. "Really everybody is just astounded that the government has let this go so far."
And while the shortages are easy to identify, it is less easy to pinpoint the cause and who should take responsibility. Robbins explains it's a non-stop blame game between the FDA, Congress and the limited number of drug manufacturers.
"Manufacturers blame the FDA, the FDA blames manufacturers, a congressional committee blames the FDA, but meanwhile none of these three entities have been able to solve this problem that's causing people to starve," says Robbins, whose article states that clinicians have reported at least 15 deaths attributable to drug shortages since 2010.
For a short-term solution, Robbins says importation of these drugs is crucial. Her research shows that countries in South America and Europe are not experiencing these shortages. This summer, the U.S. began importing a few products from Norway.
"When I talked to doctors in these countries, they couldn't believe this was going on in the U.S.," Robbins says.
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