WASHINGTON — First it was the rush for hand sanitizer. Then it was the quest for the vaccine. Now, as increasing numbers of children are coming down with swine flu, more parents are facing yet another anxiety-provoking chase: the hunt for liquid Tamiflu for kids.
Spot shortages of the liquid form of the antiviral medicine are forcing mothers and fathers to drive from pharmacy to pharmacy, often late into the evening after getting a diagnosis and prescription from a pediatrician, in search of the syrup recommended for the youngest victims of the global H1N1 pandemic.
"It was so frustrating," said Cheryl Copeland of Silver Spring, Md., who finally found some of the medication for her 5-year-old son, William, at an independent drug store Monday after having no luck at a CVS and Rite Aid. "There was a moment when the first pharmacist said, 'We don't have it. There's been a run on it,' when I said to myself, 'Where on Earth am I going to find it?' "
The drug can make the flu milder, go away more quickly and may cut the risk of potentially life-threatening complications. The shortages are being caused by a surge in demand because of the second wave of swine flu sweeping the country, combined with a decision by Roche, the Swiss company that makes the medication, to focus on producing it in capsule form.
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In response, the government has shipped to states hundreds of thousands of five-day courses from the Strategic National Stockpile, which is on standby in case there are disease outbreaks or bioterrorism attacks. Officials have also instructed doctors to suggest that pharmacists mix the powder from capsules with syrup to make a liquid for children if the company's version is unavailable.
Federal health officials are confident that enough Tamiflu is available in the capsule or liquid forms to make sure children can be treated promptly.
"For the most part, patients are getting treated," said Greg Burel, director of the CDC's Division of Strategic National Stockpile. "There have been shortages in sporadic spots, but generally it's still available."
Across the country, the number of students staying home sick with the flu is multiplying and normally quiet school nurses' offices suddenly look like big city emergency rooms, packed with students too ill to finish the day.
The federal government has urged schools to close because of the swine flu only as a last resort. But schools are closing by the dozens.
At least 351 schools were closed last week alone — affecting 126,000 students in 19 states, according to the U.S. Education Department. So far this school year, about 600 schools have temporarily shut their doors.
The number of closures this year appears on target to surpass the roughly 700 schools closed last spring when the swine flu outbreak first hit.