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In an effort to curb the growing number of hazardous drug mixups, the health ministry plans to compile an online database in which medicines will be classified according to their names and packaging, ministry sources said Wednesday.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry thus hopes to bolster its monitoring of medicines on the market and its supervision of drug companies, with the focus on changes in product names or designs.

The sources said the database will debut on the Internet in fiscal 2004.

With some of the errors in administering drugs costing lives, medical professionals have asked the government to play a greater role in determining the way drugs are packaged.

They point out that while the number of drugs is increasing, the naming and packaging of these products is left entirely to the drug companies.

The drug database, in which products will be classified by name or commodity description, will cover more than 20,000 drugs already approved by the government and categorize them into about 7,000 groupings.

The database will allow users to discover the degree to which drug names resemble each other.

In choosing names for their new drugs, companies may use the database to check whether existing drugs have similar names. Hospitals could also check whether new drugs they are planning to use are similar in name to ones already in use.

In terms of packaging, the database will focus primarily on injection drugs, the sources said. The database will allow users to capture images of similarly packaged products in terms of the materials used, label colors and other parameters, they said.

The database is already in the experimental stage, with the ministry having sought about 7 million yen in the fiscal 2004 budget.

Once the database is up and running, the ministry plans to have pharmaceutical firms update information whenever they develop a new product, the sources said.

According to a ministry analysis, roughly 40 percent of hospital incidents that just stopped short of becoming medical accidents between 2001 and 2002 were related to drug mixups.

Cases in which patients have died as a result of mistakes involving drugs with similar names and packaging have occurred in several prefectures, including Hokkaido, Gifu, Toyama and Kyoto, in recent years.

On Tuesday, Kagoshima University Hospital announced that a male lung cancer patient died after being administered the wrong medicine.

The patient needed the anticancer drug taxol, also known as paclitaxel.

But an intern mistakenly punched in the name of a stronger anticancer drug, taxotere, or docetaxel, when typing out pharmacy instructions. When written in katakana, there is a one-character difference between the two drug names.

According to hospital officials, the patient began showing side effects, including a reduction in white blood cells, around early September.

Although he showed some improvement, he died of multiple organ failure earlier this month.

In December 2000, a hospital in Hokkaido prescribed a diabetes drug to a patient with a liver ailment who needed a drug to reduce blood pressure.

The names of the two medicines were different by two katakana characters.

The patient died after losing consciousness as a result of hypoglycemia.

A mixup involving the same two drugs also took place around the same time in Okinawa.

Last spring, the Japan Federation of Medical Worker’s Unions conducted a survey of medical staff nationwide, asking what measures could be taken to prevent medical mishaps.

Many respondents complained about the huge number of drugs in use and the similarity in the names of different drugs.

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