22 million Sri Lankans lose access to medicines

Written by Paul M. shirir

Since Sri Lanka announced in April that it would default on its foreign debt, its 22 million residents have lost access to most medicines and medical supplies, setting them on course for a humanitarian catastrophe.

In contrast to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the recent strikes in Puerto Rico and Florida, the Sri Lanka crisis grew slowly and made few international headlines. But Sri Lankans are suffering amid the most severe economic crisis the country has faced since gaining independence from the British Empire in 1948.

With the country’s foreign reserves depleted, the nationalized healthcare system cannot import medicines and medical supplies in sufficient quantities. Sri Lanka depends on imports for about 85% of its pharmaceutical needs and about 80% of its medical supplies. The country is imported 815 million dollars in medicine in 2021, but by May there were only about $25 million in foreign reserves To pay for imports of any kind.

Direct relief to Sri Lanka

Last week in Sri Lanka, Direct Relief staff participated in an extensive series of meetings with Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardenathe and much of the country’s healthcare leadership while overseeing the arrival of what may be the largest donation of medicine to the country since the crisis began.

What they encountered was grim. “Over the next six months, they expect a catastrophic number of deaths,” said Chris Alway, Director of Emergency Response and New Initiatives at Direct Relief, who led the Sri Lanka meetings.

Sri Lanka’s 3,500-bed National Hospital in Colombo, which normally has 1,300 drugs in stock, now needs only 60 essential drugs.

With a lack of anesthesia, most general surgeries in the country, including kidney transplants, have stopped. Cancer patients have lost access to the medicines needed to fight the deadly disease. Diabetics should secure and bring their own glucose meters for blood sugar checks.

Many hospitals stock up on basic items such as bandages and cotton balls. Out of stock is forcing rural clinics to close their doors and refer patients to larger facilities in urban areas, which are also overwhelmed by an influx of patients.

Due to the acute shortage of fuel, the country’s fishing fleets cannot go far to sea, reducing the supply of fish that is an important source of protein in the country, including at the largest children’s hospital.

In addition to Sri Lanka’s prime minister and health minister, the direct relief crew met with the heads of the country’s medical universities, including the faculties of oncology, psychiatry, nephrology, hematology, endocrinology, critical care medicine, anesthesiology and mother and child. health.

Sri Lanka is also losing out on doctors as they migrate to other countries with more opportunities, while its medical colleges see the number of applicants for medical education dropping sharply.

“Every single one of the medical school leaders have told us they are in a difficult situation, with a huge shortage across the board for everything,” Alway said. “A lot of them were very emotional in our conversations. You could tell they connect the healthcare system to the best of their abilities with limited or no resources.”

In response to the crisis caused by Sri Lanka’s default in June of this year, Direct Relief delivered eight humanitarian shipments totaling 27 tons and 16 million specified daily doses of donated medicines.

The largest shipment from Direct Relief to Sri Lanka – 36,600 lbs. (18 tons) of medicines and medical supplies explicitly requested by the Sri Lankan government have arrived in recent weeks.

“Direct Relief’s donation of $10 million in medicines will save many lives,” Prime Minister Gunawardena said in a statement.

The 18-ton shipment included medicines to treat infections, wounds, seizures, mental health ailments, glaucoma, cardiovascular diseases and respiratory problems.

These products have been donated to Direct Relief by companies such as Accord Healthcare, Apotex, Baxter International, Teva Pharmaceuticals, and Viatris. One particularly important contribution from Accord has included the nearly 200,000 prescribed daily doses of intravenous furosemide, which is used to treat edema caused by heart failure and liver and kidney disease.

Other companies that contribute donated medicine to Sri Lanka include AbbVie, Boehringer Ingelheim Cares Foundation, Eli Lilly & Co. and Hikma Pharmaceuticals, Integra LifeSciences, Meitheal Pharmaceuticals, and Merck.

In partnership with the College of Endocrinologists of Sri Lanka and the Life for a Child programme, Direct Relief also donated and distributed two containers of insulin transported to 25 health facilities for diabetic patients under 14 years of age.

Direct Relief is working closely with the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Sri Lankan Embassy in the United States, the Department of Medical Supplies and the National Drug Regulatory Authority to provide supplies and will continue to do so.

Direct Relief has also received invaluable assistance from Medical Help Sri Lanka, an organization formed by Sri Lankans in the United States.

“Direct Relief has built trusted relationships at all levels of government and will continue to provide support as needed,” Olway said.

In April, Sri Lanka Payment suspended From about $7 billion in foreign debt maturing this year out of a total foreign debt of more than $51 billion. On September 1, the International Monetary Fund announce $2.9 billion in loans to “restore macroeconomic stability and debt sustainability while protecting financial stability, reducing corruption-related vulnerabilities, and unlocking Sri Lanka’s growth potential.”

However, the loans are not expected to restore Sri Lanka’s ability to import medicines quickly. In the meantime, Direct Relief will continue to assist the country to the extent possible, with additional medical aid shipments already underway.

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