Faced with crisis after crisis, Sri Lanka lacks vital medicines

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COLOMBO: Wasana, a 16-year-old kidney transplant recipient in Sri Lanka, relies on life-saving drugs to prevent transplant rejection.

But with Sri Lanka’s public health system bearing the brunt of the country’s worst economic crisis, Wasana’s family now faces the twin challenges of procuring new tablets and finding the money to pay for them.

“We can’t not give it to her,” Wasana’s older sister, Ishara Thilini, told Arab News. “In the areas where we live, we don’t even have these drugs.”

Most hospitals in Sri Lanka are struggling to provide the universal health care the country was once praised for, forcing patients like Wasana to find essential medicines elsewhere.

“We are hanging on. But there will be a limit to how long we can do that,” Thilini said.

The devastating economic crisis that has led to political unrest and ongoing mass protests is now rippling through health services and exposing patients to unprecedented vulnerabilities, as doctors warn they run out of medical supplies and life-saving drugs.

The country defaulted on its $51 billion external debt for the first time in its history last month, as inflation hit a record high of 39.1%. The island nation of 22 million people is suffering from shortages of essentials including food, fuel and medicine.

Sri Lanka imports more than 80% of its medical supplies, but with foreign exchange reserves depleted due to the crisis, hospitals are facing worsening shortages and dependence on foreign donors .

There is a lack of anesthesia, oxygenators and even betadine in some public hospitals, two unnamed doctors told Arab News. They declined to be named because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

“It’s a very difficult situation for us right now where we can’t do what we have to do,” one said. “It is the patients who suffer.”

Sri Lanka’s health ministry said there was a shortage of medicines and obstacles to getting essential supplies.

“We need about $32-34 million for monthly expenses (on drugs), and we hope it will come from donations,” Dr. Hamdani Anver, a health ministry official in charge of the health ministry, told Arab News. coordinate healthcare donations.

Even with help from abroad, the Government Medical Officers’ Association, a union of government doctors, said the coordination was ineffective.

“There is a shortage of drugs. There was an intervention from the World Health Organization and friendly countries, and expats are also helping right now,” Dr. Naveen De Zoysa, deputy secretary of the GMOA, told Arab News.

“But the ministry failed to coordinate and there were delays in distributions.”

Nafeel Jefferey, of community development and social protection non-profit Care Station, said he had noticed more and more people asking for help from the charity.

“We have a web portal and people can enter their needs. The numbers are increasing day by day,” Jefferey told Arab News.

There is also a spike in drug prices, he said, as drugs that cost around $14 a month just eight weeks ago now cost around $21.

“There is a shortage of drugs, but the price escalation is more serious,” Jefferey added.

Dr Sanjeeva Gunasekera, a pediatric oncologist at the National Cancer Institute, said support from foreign donors has been essential in keeping things afloat at her hospital.

“So we were able to get (medicine). Just because of that, we were able to manage without drastically changing treatment plans,” Gunasekera told Arab News.

But drugs are only part of the medical shortages, he added. There is also a huge need for other medical essentials, such as cannulas and syringes, which are required to perform surgical procedures.

“It’s the invisible side of the medical shortage,” he said.

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