Lebanon’s drug shortage leaves patients in limbo

QLEIAT, Lebanon – Saydi Mubarak and his mother share a bond that goes beyond a close mother-daughter relationship: They were both diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago and have undergone months of chemotherapy in a Beirut hospital, facing anxiety, hair loss. and uncertainty for the future.

Today, they share the fear of not being able to get the drugs they need to complete their treatment because in Lebanon, where a devastating economic crisis has disrupted daily life, there are hardly any drugs to be found.

The tiny Mediterranean country – once a medical hub in the Middle East – is struggling with severe shortages of medical supplies, fuel and other essentials. The economic crisis, described as one of the worst in the past 150 years, is rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement by a political class that has racked up debts and done little to encourage local industries, forcing the country to depend imports for almost everything.

But these imports are difficult to obtain as the Lebanese pound has lost more than 90% of its value since 2019 and the central bank’s foreign exchange reserves are drying up. The crisis was made worse by a massive explosion that destroyed the country’s main port last year.

For months, drugstore shelves have been bare, exacerbated by panic buying and vendors withholding drugs, hoping to sell them later at higher prices amid the uncertainty. Hospitals are at a breaking point, barely able to afford diesel to run generators and day-to-day rescue machinery.

Drug shortages threaten tens of thousands of people, including cancer patients. In desperation, many have taken to social media or turned to travelers from overseas. Nowadays, Lebanese visitors and expats often arrive with suitcases full of pills, vials and other medical supplies for relatives and friends.

Mubarak, a 36-year-old high school teacher and mother of two boys, says the feeling of not being safe never leaves her. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in July last year, weeks before her mother, Helen Akiki, discovered a lump in her breast.

After months of chemo, Mubarak underwent a mastectomy in December. She is currently undergoing therapy which is expected to take 10 years, consisting of a daily pill and a monthly injection of hormones to make sure the cancer does not come back.

As the shortages became more severe and Mubarak was unable to find the hormone, the family posted their story on Instagram with Mubarak’s cell phone number.

For the next day and a half, the phone kept ringing – Lebanese around the world offered to send him the drugs. Six days after the due date for an injection, a traveler from neighboring Jordan delivered the drug to him personally.

“It was very moving,” said Mubarak, sitting in the garden of her one-story house in Qleiat, a mountain town north of Beirut, as her sons ran, feeding chickens and rabbits. She said the traveler refused to accept payment.

Obtaining the drug is not the last hurdle for Mubarak and his mother. Due to the fuel crisis in Lebanon, they worry about whether they will find enough gas every time they need to travel to Beirut for treatment. Recently, Akiki was told that the hospital could not find the drug used in the serum for its therapy. They replaced it with an injection which she said was more painful.

Akiki says the two found the strength to face the battle together, though she struggles with the guilt that she herself fell ill when her daughter needed her most.

Shelves are mostly empty in the pharmacy for cancer drugs inside the government-run Rafik Hariri University Hospital in Beirut, Lebanon.
Photo AP / Hassan Ammar

“Now is not the time for me to be sick,” Akiki said. “I tell myself that what is important is her. A mother stops thinking about her right now.

Issam Shehadeh, head of the cancer department at Rafik Hariri University Hospital in Beirut, said the situation had deteriorated significantly over the past three months. The Ministry of Health’s stocks of essential drugs are now empty and many hospitals are unable to obtain supplies from importers who are holding back.

“We have reached a point where we have told patients that ‘we have no more means of treating you,” Shehadeh said. Doctors often have no other recourse but to advise patients to try to treat themselves. procuring medicines abroad, a difficult task for everyone, but especially for the poor, whose ranks are swelling in the economic crisis More than half of Lebanon’s 6 million inhabitants today live in poverty .

One of Shehadeh’s patients, Wahiba Doughan, with lung cancer, contacted relatives in France who sent enough medicine for two chemotherapy sessions. Relatives have refused to be reimbursed, but Doughan is worried about having to pay for future medication: a government-subsidized dose for a session in Lebanon costs $ 40, or a tenth of the price in France.

“I live in anxiety,” said Doughan, a 60-year-old civil servant. “I’ve found the dose now but maybe later I won’t.”

At the end of August, dozens of cancer patients gathered outside major United Nations offices in Beirut to call for international help. “We refuse to have a life countdown,” one banner read. Another said: “Our government is killing us. “

Najat Rochdi, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Lebanon, broke down in tears as he listened to patients talk about their plight. She said her office was in contact with potential donors, including the World Bank, to find solutions.

A new government has promised to take control of the economic crisis.

But in the absence of the Lebanese state, calls on social networks have mobilized the country’s large diaspora, as in the case of Mubarak.

Mubarak says she doesn’t know how to compensate those who sent her a three-month supply of drugs.

“I mention them in my prayers every day,” said Mubarak, a devout Christian. “God willing, people will continue to help each other. “

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