Opinion: Germany’s shortage of kids’ medicine was avoidable

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A young sick child holds her stomach
German doctors say the country’s pediatric units are on the brink of collapse due to a surge in infectionsImage: Colourbox

Anecdotally, I can tell you that astrology has gotten more popular lately. If you want data, Google Trends can also back it up. Sure, many of us talk about our star signs “ironically,” saying it’s just for fun. But you wouldn’t know it were you to see me racing to open my monthly horoscope email (especially during Sagitarrius season).

It’s easy to mock people for looking at the stars for hints about future events. But the impulse is understandable when you look around and see how we’re swimming in data and hard facts, yet avoidable catastrophes seem to take us by surprise all the same.

It’s been the case with climate change, something scientists have warned about for decades. And it was the case with the pandemic, which experts had also predicted (as a side effect of climate change, as it were). Now, Germany is in a similar pickle as it grapples with a severe shortage of medicine for children. Like a lot of news today, it might be shocking, but it’s no surprise.

Germany’s children’s ward are overwhelmed

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A shortage years in the making

For years Germany has suffered from a medicine shortage. As an American transplant, I’m always grateful that living in Germany means access to universal healthcare. But it’s not been lost on me that I’ve defaulted more than once to getting basic vaccines while on trips back home, simply because Germany didn’t have any doses left.

So how did we get here? Germany, like the rest of the world, spent much of the last few years huddled indoors, avoiding the coronavirus. The wave of other infections that would inevitably follow the lockdowns became a new topic of small talk with colleagues and friends.

Today, lockdowns are over in most of the world, and that wave has finally crashed. And it’s those with the least developed immune systems – small children – that are being hit the hardest.

Many countries are experiencing a massive wave of respiratory illnesses, including the human respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a highly contagious virus that infects babies and toddlers. German doctors warn the increased demand for treatment has brought the country’s pediatric intensive care system close to collapse.

Health authorities warn of ‘twindemic’ of COVID, flu

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Stop blaming other countries

Theoretically, we knew this was coming. But still, we were surprised to hear of distressed parents who, seeking relief for their feverish babies, have been turned away from German pharmacies and hospitals. Among other basic medicines, children’s paracetamol and ibuprofen, which help relieve pain and fever, are in short supply, according to Germany’s Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices.

“It’s the supply chains!” some might shout, a familiar refrain to anyone working in business journalism during the pandemic. And yes, it’s true that today China and India produce much of the world’s active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), a key component used in medicines, and that China’s commitment to its zero-Covid policy continues to strain the global economic order.

But the supply chains didn’t cause demand for fever-reducing medicines like liquid ibuprofen to spike 800% compared to last year. Even a well-functioning system would struggle to respond quickly to that sort of increase.

Headshot Kristie Pladson
DW Business reporter Kristie PladsonImage: Kristie Pladson

Outdated regulation

It also wasn’t the supply chains that regulated medicine prices in Germany. Price caps for medicine are a good idea. No one should struggle for access to medical treatment. But a price cap for consumers in an otherwise largely free market environment leads to dilemmas like Germany now faces, where medicine prices have remained largely the same but production costs have risen significantly.

According to Pro Generika, a German manufacturer of generic label medicines, producers of children’s paracetamol have received €1.36 ($1.45) per bottle for around ten years. Meanwhile, active ingredients have gotten 70% more expensive. Twelve years ago there were eleven producers of children’s paracetamol in Germany; today there is only one.

There’s a debate to be had about the best way to ensure that people have access to necessary medicines. For now, I’d merely say Germany should have read the writing on the wall. Humans have never had more access to facts and knowledge. There’s a reason “follow the science” has become a popular refrain. The science and the data are there. But when the institutions responsible for public well-being fail to follow them in a meaningful way, it will be a shock, but no surprise, when desperate people take less predictable paths. At least, that’s what my horoscope says.

Edited by: Ashutosh Pandey