Photo/IllutrationCefazolin (Provided by Nichi-Iko Pharmaceutical Co.)

A shortage of cefazolin, an “essential” antibiotic used in various surgeries to prevent infections, is causing turmoil in hospitals in Japan, and a resumption in supplies is nowhere in sight.

“This is an absolutely must-have drug,” said a doctor at the department of infectious diseases at a hospital in the Kanto region. “Our hospital has been plunged into chaos because we must think about alternative drugs according to the type of surgery and the kind of disease.”

Cefazolin is on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines.

Nichi-Iko Pharmaceutical Co., which controls about 60 percent of the domestic market share in cefazolin, said it was forced to suspend production after a number of contamination cases surfaced since late last year over a pharmaceutical ingredient produced by an Italian company.

Stocks of cefazolin in Japan were depleted by early March, the Toyama-based company said.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, with assistance from the National Center for Global Health and Medicine, provided a list of alternative drugs to relevant organizations on March 29.

But these substitute agents are also in short supply.

The Kanto hospital, which normally uses 3,000 bottles of cefazolin a month, was informed of the pending cefazolin shortage in late February.

“With no prospects of a resumption in the cefazolin supply, it’s difficult for us to plan for the days ahead,” the doctor there said.

He said he has asked other doctors to curb the use of antibiotics, while the hospital has joined in the scramble for substitutes.

Yoshiaki Gu, a doctor at the National Center for Global Health and Medicine, warns that the use of substitutes carries risks.

“Some of the alternative drugs have a lower preventive effect compared with cefazolin, increasing the risk of causing infectious diseases and drug-resistant bacterium after surgery,” Gu said. “Surgeries could be affected at hospitals.”

The Japanese Association for Infectious Diseases on March 26 also stressed that cefazolin is a key drug for antimicrobial therapy.

“We will strive to tackle the shortage issue in close cooperation with related organizations to minimize possible havoc on the medical front,” the association said in a statement.

(This article was written by Sokichi Kuroda and Keitaro Fukuchi.)