Hospitals running out of drugs, surgeries cancelled, Sri Lanka’s once-praised health sector is in crisis

Colombo: Faced with chronic shortages of medical equipment, antibiotics and anaesthetics, doctors in major hospitals, especially state-run ones, across Sri Lanka have been forced to stop performing unscheduled surgeries urgent, ThePrint has learned.

This is just one aspect of the devastating effect the country’s current economic crisis has had on the healthcare sector, which was once lauded for providing better medical care than its South Asian neighbors.

Funds are so low that doctors at public hospitals say even providing meals to hospitalized patients has become a challenge.

Furthermore, since Sri Lanka imports about 86% of its pharmaceutical supplies, the shortage of foreign exchange in the country has led to a shortage of medical supplies and has also increased the price of all generic drugs by about 30% nationwide. island.

Patients due to undergo surgery and other medical procedures for as long as six months are being turned away, said Dr Haritha Aluthge, secretary of the Government Medical Officers Association, a doctors’ union.

He added that vital tests are also not being carried out due to the shortage of consumables such as blood glucose strips, blood gas machines, catheters, heart stents and ultrasound paper. Whatever stocks are available, he said, have been allocated for emergency surgeries.

A public hospital pediatrician also told ThePrint on condition of anonymity that these basic consumables were not available because there were no funds to purchase them.

Medicines and even food are now luxuries in government facilities, with many patients depending on the largesse of those who are financially better off, including Sri Lankans living abroad.

The pediatrician said the records room at the hospital where he works is now essentially a warehouse with milk, eggs and dry rations piled high. “These items are donated by people because we cannot afford to provide a nutritious meal for the children. It is so serious that we have a fund for milk and eggs,” he said.

With medication, too, many patients rely on acts of kindness. “What usually happens is that some patients get together and buy [medicines] pharmacies outside at higher prices and distribute it to those who cannot afford the drug,” said a pediatrician attached to Lady Ridgeway General Hospital in Colombo.


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The drug is running out

The difficult situation in Sri Lanka’s health sector began alongside the currency crisis in March this year, according to Dr. Anver Hamdani, director of medical technical services at the country’s health ministry.

At the time, 14 vital medical items were in short supply along with 300 essential items, he said. “Currently, around 112 drugs are still missing,” he said, noting that there is also a significant shortage of reagents. Reagents are substances or compounds that facilitate chemical reactions and are widely used in testing.

Some vulnerable groups are hardest hit by drug shortages, including pediatric and cancer patients.

Public sector doctors have said meropenem – an antibiotic often used to treat babies – is no longer available in public hospitals, nor is the meningococcal vaccine. The chemotherapy drug gemcitabine is also out of stock.

The All-Island Pharmacy Owners Association Private Limited (AIPOA), a group of pharmacists, is grappling with requests to supply cancer drugs.

“The problem in public sector hospitals is so severe that 95% of State Pharmaceutical Corporation (SPC) drugs are not available. Cancer drugs were still sent from abroad by the SPC. Now there are almost none,” said GMCD Gankanda, President of AIPOA.

Thilani Wijesinghe, 44, a business owner from Mulleriyawa in the heart of Colombo, said finding cancer drugs for her mother was a major challenge.

“She is being treated at the (government) Neville Fernando Hospital and sometimes we run from pillar to pillar looking for medicine. Most often we have to buy it outside the hospital,” Wijesinghe said.

Many cancer patients can barely afford these drugs. To add to the problem, the price of many expensive cancer drugs has more than quadrupled, according to drugstore owners.

Chamat Amarasiri, 25, an office assistant, said doctors at Kandy National Hospital in Sri Lanka’s highlands, where her father is being treated for blood cancer, asked them to buy medicine in a private pharmacy for chemotherapy treatment.

“I only managed to get two doses. I need five more. I’m told it’s not available in the area. It is very expensive. We can barely afford it,” Amarasiri said.

Help from foreign shores

To help overcome the healthcare crisis, Sri Lankan expats are stepping up their donations.

“The way we manage medication at critical times is through the College of Paediatricians Fund run by a crisis team and funded by Overseas Sri Lankans,” the pediatrician quoted earlier said.

Foreign donations such as these, sent by air freight and sea containers, are actively sought by public sector hospitals.

“We receive donations from the diaspora. So far, we’ve mainly gotten them from Australia. Some supporters bring it directly from abroad and donate it to the fund/hospital. Nobody wants to give money to the Ministry of Health,” said a doctor in the government sector.

Different countries have donated around $9 million in medicines and supplies since March, and in addition, expatriate organizations and groups have donated medicines worth almost $1.3 million, have said officials from Sri Lanka’s health ministry, which oversees 1,200 health facilities.

Dr Hamdani said the expat community in the UAE was the first to start sending donations. “We are very grateful to them for starting the initiative,” he said.

Isthiaq Raziq, president of Sahana, a Sri Lankan welfare charity in the United Arab Emirates, said he sent the drugs to Sri Lanka after extensive coordination efforts with the country’s health ministry.

According to Dr Hamdani, donations have also come from the expatriate community in countries including Bangladesh, Indonesia, India, France, Vietnam, China and Nepal.

International donor agencies are also providing some relief. For example, Americares, one of the world’s leading non-profit organizations, donated US$773,000 worth of medical supplies to Sri Lanka at the request of the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington, DC last month.

Dr Hamdani added that also last week the ministry had discussions with lending agencies who had pledged large donations.

Last month, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Sri Lanka announced that it would procure and deliver life-saving and essential medicines and medical supplies for the country, “in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Sri Lanka, with financial support from the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF)”.

According to Dr. Hamdani, the ministry is trying to procure medical items for three months through soft loans from donor agencies. He added: “We have also launched a major security plan for medicines for the next six months, and through donor agencies, to subsequently sign agreements for the purchase of medicines for the year. next”.

(Editing by Asavari Singh)


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