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Veterinarians fear misuse of over-the-counter vaccines, syringes


Veterinarians are criticizing a move by Safeway grocery stores to sell over-the-counter medicines for animals -- including vaccination kits containing hypodermic syringes.

A newspaper advertisement on Sunday announced that the "Pharm-assist" program would offer, "at substantial savings and optimum convenience," prescription medicines that previously could only be bought at a veterinarian's office. The ad also said pet owners could buy non-prescription vaccines for their dogs and cats, which they presumably would administer by syringe, at Safeway pharmacies.

It is the sale of the vaccinations that especially concerns the Fallston-based Maryland Veterinary Medical Association, which has called on Safeway to stop selling the medicines.

The marketing polices of Safeway and other pharmacies that offer the drugs "severely endanger the health, safety and welfare of unsuspecting consumers and innocent pets," said Ray Thompson, executive director for the 750-member organization. He said the organization has received about 200 phone calls from its members since the Safeway ad appeared.

"They probably see a tremendous market out there," Mr. Thompson said. "But we believe that they may not have considered all the physical and psychological dangers to humans and animals, the moral ramifications in the community and their own potential liability."

Mr. Thompson said there were several possible dangers: vaccines not properly refrigerated before they are sold, pet owners not trained to give vaccinations, the potential problems in using syringes and the improper disposal of syringes.

Also, he said, most animal hospitals and kennels won't keep an animal overnight without proof that all necessary vaccinations were administered by a veterinarian.

But a spokeswoman for Safeway Stores Inc. in Landover said that the company is simply making the vaccines available as a service to its customers who feel confident that they can administer them properly. The vaccines come with an illustrated sheet of instructions, and Safeway pharmacists would help instruct pet owners who have questions about using the syringes, said Anne Cockrell, a Safeway consumer affairs manager.

"We're not telling people to run out and vaccinate their pets. It's just that we're offering a product and the means to do it," she said. "If a person considering doing it is not comfortable, then they shouldn't consider doing it."

The vaccines are available in all 61 Safeway pharmacies in the company's Eastern District, covering an area from Baltimore to Richmond, Va., and west to Charlottesville, Va. Safeway also sells the pet medicines in its stores around Phoenix, Ariz.

Mr. Thompson said he has heard of other pharmacies in Maryland selling pet vaccines but has not been able to substantiate this. Still, he sent similar letters to Rite Aid and Revco asking the companies not to sell the vaccines. His organization also plans to press for state legislation banning over-the-counter sale of animal vaccines and syringes.

According to the Associated Press, a spokesman for Giant Food Inc., which has 103 pharmacies in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, said the stores can order such vaccines but do not keep them in stock. TC To buy prescription drugs for their pets, customers must have prescriptions from a veterinarian. To buy the vaccines, the customer must show identification and sign a register book, which is required of anyone buying a syringe in the state. No prescription is needed to buy the syringe.

A kit containing distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, parainfluenza and parvovirus vaccines and a single syringe costs $4.99 at Safeway. The same vaccination costs $19.95 at a veterinarian's office. The idea for the program came from Safeway's Eastern District pharmaceutical coordinator, who had been ordering veterinary drugs out of a wholesale catalog, Ms. Cockrell said. "He thought that some of our customers might like to order if they knew it was available," she said.

But a Columbia veterinarian said the easy availability of the vaccines "just boggles me."

"Anyone can walk into a Safeway and for $5 buy a vaccine with a syringe. And who know where the syringe is going to end up?" said Dr. David Tayman of the Columbia Animal Hospital.

Dr. Tayman is also concerned that untrained pet owners will be trying to vaccinate their pets, which he says is tricky.

"If someone comes in and says 'I vaccinated my dog,' I don't know if the dog was sick when it was vaccinated," which would render the vaccine ineffective, he said. In addition, if the pet has an allergic reaction, which requires an immediate injection of adrenalin, it will likely die.

"I don't know anybody in practice that would condone this," Dr. Tayman said. "Would you vaccinate your child? I can't imagine that."

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