Lives at risk in Lebanon as drug availability plummets
In their home in Achrafieh, which still bears the scars of the Beirut explosion, Habib Copti, 79, and Elham Copti, 75, count the last boxes of medicine to treat their various ailments.
“There are days when I can take my medication and others when we no longer have the necessary quantities. This forces us to have to skip doses. Sometimes we have to mix different brands of drugs to make sure we get the desired effect,” Habib said.
“The situation has gotten worse for my wife and me, but what can we do? Maybe other people are suffering even more than us,” he added.
Retired for just over a decade with their assets tied up in banks due to the ongoing crisis that the World Bank has described as one of the world’s worst crisis episodes since the mid-19th century, they have told Al-Arabiya English their increasingly complicated access to the drugs needed to treat their diabetes, hypertension and blood circulation problems.
“Before the crisis, Glucophage to treat diabetes cost 40,000 to 60,000 Lebanese pounds. It has increased to 300,000 Lebanese pounds and is not available in the country.
“It is also difficult for us to go from pharmacy to pharmacy to find the drugs because of the price of gasoline and our many health problems.”
The lifting of subsidies on many drugs across the country by the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health (MOPH) has led to a sharp rise in drug prices. Many drugs have become unavailable or unaffordable for a large part of the population.
At home in Ashrafiyeh, Habib Copti and Elham Copti are receiving treatment for their diabetes. (Photo: Clement Gibon)
Majority of families experience drug price hikes
While its relief report highlighted that more than half of families in Lebanon could not get the medicine they needed, UNICEF noted that more than nine out of ten families surveyed had experienced an increase in medicine prices.
For 28-year-old pharmacist Roni Haber, who works at the Bou Khalil pharmacy and who recently volunteered to help the Nation Station clinic which receives patients for free diagnosis, the problem of access to medicines is twofold.
“Not only are patients facing a shortage of drugs, but their prices have tripled or even quintupled for some. Many patients turn to brands for certain types of more affordable generics, but not all brands have Lebanese generics,” he said.
As a result, many people have to buy medicines from neighboring countries such as Syria, Jordan or Turkey or rely on their families living abroad, in the United States, Europe or the Gulf countries, to receive their treatment. However, with salaries not exceeding 675,000 Lebanese pounds [24$]access to medicines remains very uncertain.
In Beirut, Marina el-Khawand, a 20-year-old student who started the aid group Medonations to meet the medical needs of Lebanese citizens, receives hundreds of phone calls from patients every month.
“Every day we register a new patient. For two years, we have been treating at least 450 a month, and we can receive up to 1,000 patients. Last month, no less than 966 patients came for medicine,” she says.
Due to a lack of access to affordable medicines, the Lebanese population is turning to NGOs, which are increasingly saturated. For some illnesses, such as cancer patients, treatment cannot wait. Last June, the committee demonstrated in front of parliament to demand that the government provide access to affordable triage.
“You can’t tell a cancer patient to wait a month to get their medicine. It’s like telling them to die. Yesterday we saw the case of a cancer patient requesting an online donation of $30,000 for her treatment, then $70,000 for surgery and $26,000 for medication. Who can pay this kind of exorbitant price? she says.
“This basic right to get your medicine should be available to every human being on this planet; it’s not something you have to beg or knock for,’ she added.
On several occasions, cancer patients have launched campaigns against the shortage of drugs threatening thousands of people. (Photo: Clement Gibon)
Health professionals leave Lebanon for new horizons
In addition to the lack of drugs, access to prescriptions and care is becoming more complicated. With the dollarization of more sectors in the country, patients cannot afford hospitalization fees or get doctor’s appointments.
At the same time, the exodus of qualified Lebanese doctors and nurses, estimated at thirty to forty percent by Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), leaves the medical sector with few resources.
“If you go to the hospital and you don’t have any money, they don’t care about you. They ignore you,” el-Khawand said.
“The health system has collapsed, the government is just putting bandages on the scratches, but later they will realize that everything has collapsed,” she added.
Nevertheless, there are ways to improve the medical sector. The various health professionals interviewed for this article recommend stopping imports, which are unaffordable, and investing in local production of medical equipment and medicines.
According to the Ministry of Public Health, Lebanon imports about 80% of its pharmaceutical products, which represents an annual expenditure of more than a billion dollars.
With these 12 local drug producers registered with the Union of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers, the country, which already produces about 21% of the total generics available on the market, could reduce its imports, making the drugs widely available and cheaper. .
Until the government invests in these manufacturing facilities, the availability and affordability of medicines for the Lebanese population will remain uncertain.
“We have the production, we have the resources, we know, we have the human skills, but we need the hand of this corrupt government to work and stop stealing money. I can’t find the words to describe what may happen in the future,” el-Khawand said.
“The situation is worse than before and people are dying at home because they haven’t taken their medicine,” she concluded.
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