Drug donations reflect global goodwill towards Sri Lanka | Print edition

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Amid the economic crisis in the country, one of the most encouraging signs has been the spontaneous support from the international community; at a time when the country needs it most.

While battling the economic crisis on different fronts, one of the areas that poses a big challenge to the government is to ensure the continuous supply of medicines and medical equipment for the people.

Sri Lanka’s public health system has been taxed to the max during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to the skill and competence of doctors, nurses and other medical personnel, the country has done reasonably well in handling the pandemic.

Today, the health sector faces challenges of a different kind. Ensuring that adequate stocks of drugs and equipment are available in both the public and private sectors is a daunting task in a cash-strapped economy.

There are numerous reports of shortages of medicines and medical equipment in various parts of the health sector. One of the most tragic reports concerns the shortage of painkillers used to relieve the suffering of cancer patients at Apeksha Hospital in Maharagama. Another heartbreaking report speaks of the shortage of drugs at Lady Ridgeway Children’s Hospital in Colombo.

A media report quoted Lady Ridgeway Hospital Director G. Wijesuriya as saying there was a 10% drug shortage at the hospital.

According to him, essential drugs are also included in the list of drugs in shortage. Dr. Wijesuriya also said that despite the unavailability of several drugs, the hospital has not suspended any treatment or surgery.

The impact of the drug shortage at Lady Ridgeway Hospital can be understood when one realizes that Lady Ridgeway Hospital caters to the poorest of the poor for whom getting medical care for their children is next to impossible if the hospital closes them.

Among the many reports of drug shortages are shortages of drugs prescribed for heart patients and those needed for essential surgeries. These reports often come from government hospital sources themselves and their veracity cannot be doubted.

Another tragic story reported by the media a few weeks ago was the case of a young child from Anuradhapura who was bitten by a snake. While playing cricket with his friends, the boy reached into a bush to retrieve the ball and was bitten by a snake.

The boy’s father rushed him to the nearest public hospital where he received the first necessary medication. Another antivenom had to be administered but this was not available at the hospital, so the doctor gave the father a prescription to buy from a private pharmacy.

The desperate father went to every pharmacy in town but was unable to buy the medicine as it was not available. Consequently, the boy died.

This reflects very well the situation in the country. Normally, this anti-venom drug would be readily available in government hospitals as the need to treat snake victims would be almost routine, especially in rural areas of Sri Lanka.

There may be other similar stories that go unreported, leaving the families of the victims to suffer in silence. However, such incidents of suffering caused by drug shortages should prompt authorities to renew efforts to address this challenge.

As mentioned earlier, the silver lining amidst the economic crisis facing the country is the spontaneous support that has been extended by Sri Lanka’s friends around the world. Since the economic crisis hit, there have been almost daily reports of assistance in the form of donations of medicines and medical equipment from around the world.

The list of donors is quite impressive and heartwarming. UN and its agencies, multilateral bodies, India, United States, United Kingdom, Pakistan, Japan, Russia, Malaysia, European Union, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia , Qatar and Iran are some of the countries that come to mind, but the list is not exhaustive with several others as well.

The significance of the helping hands that have been extended to Sri Lanka is that in addition to government donations, there has been support from non-governmental organizations and grassroots organizations as well.

The question is: with the drugs the government is importing and the substantial drug donations coming in, does the country face such an acute shortage of drugs?

Pharmaceutical industry sources point out that the delay between placing orders and receiving the affected drugs can take up to a year, contributing to the shortage.

Health Minister Dr. Keheliya Rambukwella has promised to streamline the procurement process for drug imports to meet people’s needs.

There is a need for the management of limited drug stocks to be streamlined to identify gaps in the continued availability of drugs, after taking into account imports and donations received. This will help the government secure additional assistance from friendly countries and other short-term sources.

The government and the Ministry of Health may already be engaged in this task, which is very good.

Otherwise, the government must adopt this strategy and other strategies to meet the needs of the population. For many, especially the poor and vulnerable, this could be a matter of life and death.

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