LEESBURG, Va., June 10, 2000 -- Five-year-old Brendan Ward had a bed-wetting problem, so his doctor prescribed a medication containing 50 milligrams of imipramine per teaspoon.

Brendan's mother took the prescription to Leesburg Pharmacy, where a technician mistyped the amount as 250 milligrams, five times the correct amount. The pharmacist on duty didn't notice the error and filled it as the technician had typed it.

Brendan's mother gave her little boy a teaspoonful of medicine at bedtime that night, April 5. The next morning, she found his cold, lifeless body in his bed.

Shocking? Definitely. Tragic? Extremely. Unusual? Not at all.

In fact, because of a shortage of pharmacists and the steady increase in the use of prescription medications, the rate of death and injury from botched prescriptions is skyrocketing, officials say.

There are as many as 7,000 deaths annually in the United States from incorrect prescriptions, according to Carmen Catizone of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. He told The Washington Post that as many as 5 percent of the 3 billion prescriptions filled each year are incorrect.

With the number of prescriptions expected to climb to 4 billion by 2004 and the number of pharmacists steadily decreasing, there are bound to be "problems down the road," Catizone said.

The owner of the Leesburg Pharmacy called Brendan Ward's death "a pharmacist's worst nightmare" and said he has tightened procedures to ensure that at least two pharmacists review every prescription before it goes out the door.

What You Can Do It's not easy for consumers to protect themselves against such errors, but there are steps you can take:

  1. Read the prescription your doctor gives you aloud. Ask the physician to confirm it.
  2. Verify the dosages and drug names with your doctor.
  3. Before going to the pharmacy, write down the dosage and drug names.
  4. Go to a reputable pharmacy, one that has more than a single pharmacist working with clerk and technician helpers. You can contact your state pharmacy board for information. Some will tell you if a pharmacist has been disciplined in the past.
  5. When you pick up the prescription, check the labels and make sure the dosages and drug names match what you have written down.
These steps are not foolproof but they're a good start.