A baby formula shortage sweeping the US that has trigged a political crisis for Joe Biden is continuing to distress parents, caregivers, and medical professionals as they still find the vital product difficult to obtain.
Reports of the shortage troubling intensive care units for newborns, as well as creating a black market for the scarce product, are still proliferating across the US media despite a concerted effort at the highest levels of government to get a hold on the crisis.
Dr Stan Spinner, chief medical officer and vice-president of Texas Children’s Pediatrics and Texas Children’s Urgent Care, said pediatric practices are receiving phone calls from worried parents about where to find formula and which kinds are acceptable for their babies.
Spinner said not having the right formula can lead to developmental issues for babies, especially for those with special metabolic needs.
“Babies are not little people. Their nutritional needs are very different. If babies don’t get the right type of nutrition, as far as the proteins, the carbohydrates, all the various minerals, mixed in the right way, it can make babies very anemic. It can affect their kidneys. It can affect their heart, their metabolism. You don’t just simply give a young baby cow’s milk. It’s not a sufficient way of giving them their nutrition,” he said.
Reports of babies being rushed to emergency rooms after consuming homemade or diluted formulas show the importance of proper nutrition for infants, especially those with special dietary needs.
This week, the Michigan-based baby formula manufacturer, Abbott, resumed operations at a key production plant that was previously shut down after four infants that consumed Abbott-made formula developed bacterial infections, resulting in two deaths.
Only a handful of companies are responsible for the production of all baby formula in the US, calling into question the power they have over an essential product. Abbott is the country’s largest baby formula producer – producing about 50% of baby formula to US consumers – and the plant’s temporary closure launched a wave of supply shortages across the market.
Widely criticized as being slow to react to the issue, Biden eventually invoked the Emergency Defense Production Act on 18 May and instructed private companies to ramp up production and for more baby formula to be imported from other countries.
Dubbed Operation Fly, the administration’s plan even included the use of Department of Defense (DoD) aircraft to transport the formula overseas in order to speed up delivery.
In May, the first Operation Fly formula shipment was delivered to Indiana and the second shipment of about 1m 8-ounce bottles was delivered to Virginia. Three more shipments will be sent to Pennsylvania, California and Texas this month.
The FDA announced it was also taking steps to increase supply, such as importing 33m full-size, 8-ounce bottles of Nestle’s Gerber Good Start Gentle formula from Mexico, but the production and importation will take weeks.
Abbott is focusing on the production of EleCare, a specialty formula for infants who cannot tolerate other types. The company announced it will soon focus on producing the popular brand, Similac and other formulas.
For babies requiring specialty formula, Spinner said parents and caregivers should ask a pediatrician if they cannot find any for their baby because like Texas Children’s, other practices may be able to request formula directly from manufacturers like Abbott.
For a baby with special formula needs, consuming the wrong formula can lead to diarrhea, blood in the stool and dehydration.
“When that brain, heart, and lungs are rapidly developing early on, if they’re not getting the right type of nutrition, they’re not necessarily going to develop in a healthy way. So it’s not just you’re sick for a while and you’re okay. It can very much have those long term consequences,” Spinner said.
But for babies on generic formulas like Similac, for example, Spinner urges parents to consider other brands if their go-to is unavailable and to always consult with a pediatrician before switching.
“If we’re talking about standard formulas, which majority of our babies are on, there’s really no consequence going from brand A to brand B. They’re all the same ingredients. The difference is if you’re talking about a different kind of formula.”