An increase in demand for the intravenous (IV) saline solution, commonly used in hospitals to hydrate patients, had healthcare service providers and pharmacists scrambling for supplies. Hospitals now use smaller IV bags with slower drip rates and healthcare service providers have been told to look for alternative solutions, such as using oral hydration fluids to cope with the shortage.

"From a pharmacy and nursing standpoint, clearly there's a significant amount of work put into it to make sure we don't run out and we manage the supplies we have in the most effective manner," said Dean Parry, director of pharmacy clinical programs at Geisinger Health System.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has already acknowledged the problem and said on Tuesday it is working with three major manufacturers, namely, Baxter International Inc., Hospira Inc. and B. Braun Medical Inc. "FDA is concerned about the seriousness of the shortage and working closely with manufacturers to ramp up supplies," said FDA press officer Christopher Kelly to USA Today in an emailed statement. "We are also investigating foreign suppliers to help address the situation."

Valerie Jensen, FDA's associate director for drug shortages, said that manufacturers already informed the agency late last year that they expect delays in filling orders but a spike in flu cases two weeks ago, have increased demand for IV saline and exacerbated the situation. "We have not heard of anyone running out of the IV solutions at this point, but we know the hospitals are not comfortable with the low supplies," Jensen said.

Michelle Corrado, president of the Massachusetts Society for Health System Pharmacists, said that because of the shortage, the price of saline IV bag has increased to up to six times its normal cost of $1 to $1.25.

Manufacturers said they are doing their part to ensure supply. "We are doing everything we can to meet the increase in demand," said Hospira spokesman Dan Rosenberg.

Baxter spokeswoman Deborah Spak, on the other hand, said that Baxter has increased its production to provide supplies for patients with the most urgent needs. "Baxter has been manufacturing solutions at maximum capacity in amounts exceeding those of prior years and is making investments to further increase supply in 2014," Spak said.

Dialysis centers also need IV saline but many centers were notified about a shortage beforehand and some of them have stocked up on supplies.

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