08 May 2012

US hospitals face medicine shortages as crucial supplies diverted to executions


US hospitals are facing shortages of a key medicine used in surgical anaesthesia as death rows stockpile the same drug for use in executions, new figures have shown.

Prisons across the USA are holding large stockpiles of pancuronium bromide, a paralysing agent designed to relax muscles during surgery, in order to use it as part of a three-drug execution ‘cocktail.’
 
The US Food and Drug administration (FDA) has repeatedly warned that the country is facing shortages of the medicine, which date back as far as 2010. Yet various Departments of Corrections, which don’t use the drug for medicinal purposes, but only in executions, are hoarding large quantities. Virginia alone, for example, holds 60 vials of the drug, enough to treat roughly 50-60 patients in emergency medical operations.

The executing states’ behaviour is particularly controversial as the use of pancuronium – which slowly suffocates the prisoner – is not even necessary in executions, as a third drug is employed to stop the heart. The second stage is purely cosmetic, paralysing the prisoner so that onlookers can’t see any signs that they might be in distress. Worse still, by paralysing the prisoner, the use of pancuronium creates a serious risk that they will be left unable to signal that the first drug, an anaesthetic, has failed to work – and therefore will die in excruciating pain, unable to move or even to speak.

Legal action charity Reprieve is calling on manufacturers to put in place procedures to ensure that the drug reaches only legitimate, medical users, and is not diverted to execution chambers – which will also help to reduce the shortages hospitals currently face.

Pancuronium bromide is manufactured by Hospira, a company which has repeatedly stated its opposition to the use of its medicines in executions. Thus far, however, it has taken no active steps to prevent this use. The result is that Hospira’s pancuronium bromide is currently unavailable for the doctors who have legitimate medical need for it, while executioners apparently have ample supplies.  

Reprieve investigator, Maya Foa said: “Regardless of your views on the death penalty, it cannot be right that hospitals are facing shortages of medicines while executing chambers sit on huge stockpiles. These drugs are being diverted from their legitimate, medical use in order to kill. Manufacturers like Hospira must put in place controls to ensure this is not allowed to happen.”

ENDS
 
Notes to editors
 
1. For further information, please contact Donald Campbell in Reprieve’s press office: +44 (0) 207 427 1082 / donald.campbell@reprieve.org.uk
 
2. The FDA lists pancuronium bromide on its page of current drug shortages, here: http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/DrugSafety/DrugShortages/ucm050792.htm

3. Manufacturer Hospira’s website currently lists pancuronium bromide as ‘out of stock’.

4. Reprieve, a legal action charity, uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. Reprieve investigates, litigates and educates, working on the frontline, to provide legal support to prisoners unable to pay for it themselves. Reprieve promotes the rule of law around the world, securing each person’s right to a fair trial and saving lives.  Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve and has spent 25 years working on behalf of people facing the death penalty in the USA.

Reprieve’s current casework involves representing 15 prisoners in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, assisting over 70 prisoners facing the death penalty around the world, and conducting ongoing investigations into the rendition and the secret detention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’ 

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