The Ministry of Health shakes up emergency plans to deal with the shortage of drugs | Print edition

By Yoshita Perera

The new central unit recalls the surplus stocks of departmental hospitals; drugs to be redistributed as needed

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Health authorities are jostling contingency plans to overcome drug shortages caused by the worsening economic crisis, with some hospitals warning they only have a few days’ supply of life-saving drugs such as drugs used in treatment of rage.

As part of its emergency measures, the Ministry of Health has decided to put in place a mechanism whereby drugs from the buffer stock of primary health care units and departmental hospitals will be brought to a central unit for distribution. based on a needs assessment, the Sunday Times learn.

The shortage was caused by disruption of supply chains and distribution networks and delays in opening letters of credit (LC) due to lack of foreign exchange. As a result, the ministry has not been able to place regular import orders as it did before the crisis.

Medicines dispensed at the national hospital. Photo by Nilan Maligaspe

Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said shortages of some drugs will continue until the ministry receives $400 million in aid from the World Bank to purchase drugs. But he estimated that it would take two months to resolve the crisis.

The World Bank, in a statement on Tuesday, said it would not offer new credit to cash-strapped Sri Lanka until an acceptable economic policy framework was in place.

However, the Bank said it was reallocating funds from previously approved projects to help the government pay for needed medicines, temporary cash transfers to poor and vulnerable households, and other forms of assistance.

“It will take about two months to procure the drugs using the necessary funds, and there will be a shortage across the country until then. To maintain the gap, we want excess drugs in stores to be transported to a central location, leaving minimal stocks in the appropriate health care units,” said Minister Rambukwella. He said the ministry is taking stock of available drugs to prepare a database.

In the meantime, the government also receives private donations. On Thursday, the Ministry of Health received 300,000 euros worth of anesthetic drugs from France.

This week, it was revealed that the current stockpile of anesthetic drugs needed for surgeries would barely last 90 days.

A chief medical officer attached to a primary health care unit in Balangoda said the unit had not yet faced a drug shortage problem. “The central government has asked us to return any excess stock we have. We have sufficient buffer stock for three months. We return most surplus drugs, including antibiotics and paracetamol, to the government, while keeping a stock with us to meet our needs for a month,” he said.

The Puttalam-Marawila Divisional Hospital is also returning additional stock to the central unit. However, a senior medical official said the hospital was facing a shortage of oral antibiotics for children.

“Doctors at Colombo National Hospital have already started to regulate the use of paracetamol and surgical consumables such as gloves, gowns, masks, syringes and gauze. We are returning surgical consumables from our stock to the ministry,” the officer said.

Some clinical drugs are already lacking in the four divisional hospitals in the Gampola region.

“Clinical drugs used to treat high blood pressure are already scarce. Antibiotic syrups for toddlers and inhalers are also unavailable. Cotton is also in short supply. The same goes for surgical drugs. These are the main shortage items. However, acute management drugs are available for a few months,” said Gampola Divisional Hospital physician Dr. Amila Panagala.

At Medawachchiya Base Hospital, a key center that treats chronic kidney disease (CKD), dialysis continues daily. The hospital, however, issued a warning, saying the drugs are running out quickly and it could only manage treatment for kidney patients for two months, if supplies are not replenished.

A hospital official confirmed that the ministry had requested details of the additional drugs. “The ministry wants to know the stocks in our possession,” he said, adding that a list was in preparation.

At Colombo South Hospital (Kalubowila), rabies vaccines are only available for a few days. Doctors’ associations have warned that apart from anti-rabies drugs, TnT tablets given to heart patients are also in short supply.

According to the Prime Minister’s office, 76 types of life-saving drugs are missing. The crisis is partly caused by the non-payment of sums due to pharmaceutical companies. The Prime Minister’s Office has estimated that Rs. 33 billion is needed to pay these companies.

The Prime Minister’s Office said Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had made arrangements to buy drugs from India using $200 million from India’s line of credit.

The Prime Minister also requested a report on existing stocks of essential pharmaceuticals and a list of medicines in shortage. The government has also decided to amend the Medicines Regulatory Authority Act to address the medicine shortage crisis.

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