It has been four months since Egyptian pharmacies started witnessing sharp shortages in certain medicines, many of which are in very high demand and have no substitute. The scarcity of US dollars in Egypt has made it impossible to
buy many foreign-imported medicines.
"Egypt spends around US $1,610 million on medicines and medicinal material per year," Dr Mahmoud Fouad, the head of the Egyptian Center for the Right to Medication, told BECAUSE. "By 21 December we'll be facing a real medicine supply crisis, as the imported medicinal material will have run out."
Medicines like Anti-Rh, usually taken during childbirth to prevent the formation of antibodies that can make future pregnancies more risky, have completely disappeared, along with all kinds of contraceptive pills. Also, child cough syrups, some medicines for mental diseases, and Avonex, a medicine for the management of Multiple Sclerosis have all vanished from the Egyptian market due to the dollar crisis.
"We have been looking for [Avonex], and it's not present in the pharmacies," Dr Mona Sharabi, co-director of the multiple sclerosis NGO MS Care, told BECAUSE. Avonex quietens the immune system, halting the onset of MS symptoms, and without it, the illness irrevocably advances. Larger companies registered at the government find it easier, but smaller companies, such as the one which imports Avonex, have more of a struggle. "We are advising people to shift to other types, which means having subcutaneous injections three times a week," said Dr Sharabi. Avonex, on the other hand, only requires one injection per week.
The MS situation is manageable for now, but in some cases, the effect is devastating. Six patients have so far required amputation of the legs due to the absence of medicines that combat hemophilia, like Vector 7, 8 and 9. "There are 16,000 others who are put at risk of leg amputation for the same reason," Dr Fouad said.
Right after Eid al-Adha vacation, 25,000 vaccines had arrived at the Cairo Airport and have been trapped there ever since due to the absence of US dollars, Dr Fouad reported.
Just a month ago, Egyptian mothers erupted in protests holding empty milk bottles with their hungry children on their shoulders. Subsidized milk formula had vanished while suppliers doubled the prices, leaving these mothers lost in despair.
"The milk formula crisis has been growing since 2008; the government kept decreasing the subsidies, while the birth rate increases year after the other," Dr Fouad explained. And with the rise of the dollar crisis, the milk formula crisis hit its peak. The military have intervened, getting involved in the industry and producing its own 'martial' milk formula cans.
"The state dealt with the crisis very cold-heartedly, as it enforced new regulations for a mother to get a can; a mother has to have her breasts checked to make sure she’s in need of the subsidized milk formula," says Dr Fouad.
There's also the story of a 13 year-old boy, Ahmed Mahmoud, who took a rubber boat to Italy on a mission to find a medicine that was not available in Egypt. Mahmoud reached Florence with a paper prescribing the medication for his younger brother diagnosed with thrombocytopenia. The Italian authorities later decided to admit Mahmoud's family and granted treatment for the ill brother at no cost.
The head of the Egyptian Center for the Right to Medication has listed some solutions to prevent dollar crisis affecting from Egypt's medical care as badly.
Dr Fouad urges the state to rush the market into independence, by gradually reducing dependency on imports. "The state owns 11 medicine companies; if we had all of them restructured, with the help of technology and qualified experts, the gap will inevitably diminish."
He also calls for the establishing of an authority for medicinal services, "to act as a surveillance entity on the market that has become chaotic due to privatization."
As a third solution, pharmacists in Egypt are also suggesting to bring back pharmaceutical formulation that was commonly practiced back in 20th century, whereby medicines were prepared from scratch at a laboratory at the pharmacy itself.
The dollar crisis has been a monster to every Egyptian ever since the central bank devalued the pound by almost 14% in March, briefly closing the gap with the black market. It led to factories shutting down, prices of nearly everything to go up and finally increasing the burden on the state to provide subsidies on groceries and goods for lower-income communities. Egypt's foreign currency shortage dates back to 25 Jan, due to the political unrest that followed scaring away tourists and foreign investors alike.
Photo: freeimages.com/Dalibor Ogrizovic