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Heartworm heartbreak: Medicine shortage forces vets to choose between dogs

8:29 AM, Aug 24, 2011   |    comments
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  • The only FDA-approved maker of Immiticide, a heartworm treatment, has stopped production.
  • Zappo is undergoing treatment for heartworms. He's one of the last dogs to get available medicine.
    

 

ATLANTA -- Dr. Duffy Jones is at the other end of the leash from a black lab.

"This is Zappo," he said from the Peachtree Hills Veterinary clinic. In response to raised eyebrows, he added, "Atlanta Lab Rescue gets creative with their names."

Zappo nudges the camera and thumps his tail. Like most labs, he's all heart. But his heart is a little too big. Dr. Jones points to cloudy white spots on an X-ray. Zappo is infected with heartworms.

(Click here to read more about Heartworm from the American Heartworm Society.)

"Of all of the diseases we see, this one is the most preventable," Dr. Jones said. "That's why it's so frustrating."

Mosquitoes carry the parasites easily in warm areas like Georgia. It can be fatal to your dog. 

Dr. Jones will use his last two boxes of Immiticide to treat Zappo and another rescue lab. The next heartworm infected dog that comes into his Peachtree Hills office will not get the medicine he needs.

"This is going to be hard for all of us," Jones said. "For us, the frustration [is] that we can't help these dogs."

Merial, a pharmaceutical company owned by Sanofi, is the only FDA-approved company to make Immiticide, the treatment for heartworm-infected dogs. Earlier this month, they sent letters to vets nationwide saying a technical issue caused a supply disruption.

They're out.

In a letter to 11Alive News, a Merial spokesman wrote: "As a result of this new supply interruption, we have depleted our inventory of IMMITICIDE and anticipate that the outage will last from several weeks to months... Merial and the IMMITICIDE manufacturer fully understand the critical need for the product and regret this outage. We are working together to return to full supply as quickly as possible."

At the Atlanta Humane Society, Dr. Gloria Dorsey is forced to make difficult choices.

"It's like triage." She said. "We have to select very carefully which individuals might be better candidates for treatment. Unfortunately, the rest go on the back burner while we wait for more medicine to be produced."

Lilly and Rosie were rescued from a hoarding house in Alabama. Winn Dixie was surrendered. They are lucky: they're being treated with Immiticide. But the clinic is on a limited supply, and no one knows when production will get back online.

There's a simple way to protect your dog: preventative medicine. Monthly heartworm preventative medicine costs less than $10 a month. But, a new map released by the American Heartworm Society shows the number of cases has gone up in Georgia between 2007 and 2010.

The spread is due, in part, to pet-owners cutting corners, saving money, not protecting their dogs. Now, with the only cure in short supply, vets are forced to put infected dogs in a "holding pattern." They keep them as inactive as possible since higher heart rates spread heartworms faster. Anti-inflammatories treat the symptoms. Vets like Dr. Jones say they're hoping to keep them alive and undamaged for weeks or months until production resumes.

"It's very concerning to all of us in the veterinary community," Jones said. 

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