As the economic crisis deepens in Lebanon, doctors and pharmacists fear the medicine shortage will result in more deaths.
Anger boiled over in the country this week after a 10-month-old girl died in Mazboud village on Saturday. It came after she was unable to receive adequate hospital treatment due to severe medical shortages, her family said.
Jouri al-Sayyid’s lungs failed after they became inflamed due to an untreated three-day fever, according to her family. With no medicines available at the hospital she was admitted to and all nearby pharmacies closed, the baby girl died in her father’s arms.
Drug importers have warned that Lebanon has already exhausted much of its medicine supplies, and the central bank has yet to pay the millions of dollars it owes to foreign suppliers.
Already reeling from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the consequences of the deadly Beirut explosion, the currency has lost over 90 percent of its value.
With the health sector barely surviving, health officials warn that without intervention it will soon succumb to overwhelming pressure.
“It’s hell. We are living in misery, quite frankly, because we can’t help people solve their problems. Even chronic medicines are not available. Even Panadol is sometimes not available,” Dr. Khaldoun al-Sharif, a Lebanese pharmacist, told Al Arabiya English.
Hundreds of pharmacists – who have been on the frontline of the medical crisis– went on strike on Friday over the lack of medicine stocks available to send a message to the health ministry and importers that they will no longer bear the brunt of their incompetence.
“Who is in front of the people in Lebanon? The pharmacists. You cannot reach the supplier. You cannot reach the importer. You cannot reach the ministry. So you will go to the pharmacy and you will not find your needed medicines, and a fight ends up taking place in front of the pharmacy,” al-Sharif said.
The central bank has said it is working with the health ministry to identify and prioritize medication and medical supplies that the government can continue subsidizing, Dr Wassim Kalaajieh, a pulmonologist and the head of the Medical Sciences Department at the Lebanese University, told Al Arabiya English.
Medicines used to treat chronic diseases and cancer are a priority, but a full list has yet to be finalized.
Christine Abi Khaled, head of the pharmacy at the Al Koura Hospital in northern Lebanon, told Al Arabiya English that as hospitals continue to exhaust their drug supplies they have had to look for alternative medicines to give patients who underwent surgery or are undergoing treatment for chronic diseases.
“There are so many medicines that we use for patients who undergo surgery that are no longer available. We automatically look for an alternative drug, but even then the alternative is not always available,” she explained.
Abi Khaled revealed that doctors and pharmacists are living in a state of helplessness where treating their patients properly will become impossible. Healthcare professionals fear the worst if any of their own family members fall ill.
“The situation is very difficult because when a patient is sleeping at the hospital [and recovering from surgery], you have to provide a treatment no matter what. It’s very stressful. In the end, you are afraid and you start thinking if my family got sick, I can’t control anything,” she said.
Hospitals and pharmacies in the country are running out of drugs and medical supplies – whether its post-op medicines or medical equipment to conduct surgeries – and it’s happening quickly, Lebanese cardiologist Dr. Taleb Nayef Shehadeh told Al Arabiya English.
“The situation is going from bad to worse, and fast, because the supplies of medical equipment and other medicines in warehouses have started to finish and are of course at threat of being permanently unavailable,” he said.
Because of the shortage of drugs across the country, all patients who are undergoing surgery must ensure they have a sufficient supply of medication prior to their operation, Shehadeh explained.
“I tell the patient’s family that they must provide these medicines because if we did the operation and you couldn’t provide these, then [the patient’s] life is at threat.”
“We have never had to do this before. We usually give them a list [of medicines they have to take] after the surgery. But now we tell them before. If you can’t provide these drugs then they’re better off not doing the surgery,” the cardiologist said.
Worried they will soon run out of essential medicines, Lebanese people are now relying on their relatives living abroad to bring back anything they can on their visits.
“Imagine you go to a pharmacy and they tell you most of the items you want are out of stock. We are bringing so many things with us,” Dubai resident Hasan Ezzedine told Al Arabiya English ahead of his trip to Lebanon.
“We are going to take Panadol. At the pharmacies they don’t sell Panadol. They only give you a sheet. We are also taking vitamins. Most of the pharmacies are closed or if they are not closed they don’t have anything. Apart from medicines, we are also bringing rice, bread, and pampers. Everything is becoming too expensive.”
Abi Khaled summed up the precarious predicament Lebanon faces with the ever dwindling availability of medicines.
“The situation is going from bad to worse. You can say now we are living in hell,” she said.
The Ministry of Health did not respond to a request for comment.