Drug shortages in Lebanon threaten operations

In a rampant black market for medicine, intensive care units are low on vital drugs

Lebanese intensive care units are running short on medicines, forcing hospitals to postpone operations as a severe economic crisis limits the country's ability to import life-saving drugs, doctors said on Wednesday.

"Medicines used only in intensive care units are missing," Dr Assem Araji, who heads parliament's Health Committee, said on Monday. "We are facing problems in ICUs.

“Medicines for heart diseases, diabetes, epilepsy and incurable illness are missing. People are searching for them from region to region and when they do find them it’s sold for twice the price,” Dr Araji said.

Medicine shortages are the latest sign of the Lebanese state's struggle to provide its population with basic needs since the onset of a financial crisis in late 2019.

Smuggling and hoarding of drugs as well as pressure from the coronavirus pandemic has worsened shortages that have become chronic in the past year and a half, Dr Araji said.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Xinhua/Shutterstock (10952737c)
A closed pharmacy is seen in Beirut, Lebanon, Oct. 13, 2020. Lebanon has been witnessing a steep shortage in medicines after news started to circulate about the Central Bank of Lebanon's plan to lift subsidies on medicines, among other products, amid shortage in foreign currency reserves in the country.
TO GO WITH "Feature: Lebanon suffers steep shortage in medicines amid news of lifting subsidies"
Lebanon Beirut Medicine Shortage - 13 Oct 2020

Lebanon imports 80 per cent of its drugs, the Medicine Importers Syndicate says, at a time when the country’s foreign currency reserves are at a record low. The country faces chronic shortages of fuel, food and other necessities, imported in dollars.

Firas Abiad, the director of Lebanon's largest public hospital, says hospitals are short on anaesthetics such as propofol and azneron, forcing doctors to postpone operations.

He said that lack of liquidity is preventing hospitals from building up enough stocks of crucial drugs in anticipation of the shortages.

"I am sure that soon we will see shortages of antibiotics and other medications," he told The National.

Drugs are subsidised by the Central Bank to keep pricing affordable amid rampant inflation, yet cheap prices encourage smuggling and hoarding, doctors and officials said.

“Smuggling has created artificial demand for medication,” Mr Abiad said. “And because people are scared they are hoarding, which worsens the shortages.”

People across the country are struggling to find the medicine they need, often visiting half a dozen pharmacies before they can buy their medications.

Lives at risk

Hawraa Faour, 36, said she has been running from pharmacy to pharmacy for the past two weeks to secure medication for her father, a paraplegic with diabetes and high blood pressure.

"I'm losing hope," she said. Her father has only one week's worth of drugs left.

Pharmacist Muhiddin Takkoush estimates that 150 to 200 common drugs are either in severe shortage in Lebanon or not available at all.

"It's a matter of life or death," Mr Takkoush said. "Even generic substitutes for missing medications are missing."

“Everything is missing, even painkillers. We have nothing to sell to people.”

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