Foreign Currency Drought Worsens Illegal Pharmaceutical Smuggling
The shortage in foreign currency has severely affected the import industry of Ethiopia. Electronic devices and building equipment price spikes have been apparent for some time now. The pharmaceutical sector has become the latest import industry to be hit by the problem.
Wazema Radio reporters have interviewed a number of pharmacies in Addis Ababa, confirming the worsening shortage status of pharmaceutical drugs. Let alone essential medicines, it seems Supplements and Mineral additives have also ‘disappeared’ from the market.
For instance, Liptomama, a ‘Swiss-made skimmed milk formula, specifically designed for pregnant and lactating mothers’ is one of the medicines which has been affected by the forex shortage, with current prices around ETB 300 per can, which were previously ETB 100. The formula used to be available in supermarkets, let alone pharmacies, but now it has vanished from all retail vendors.
The Medicine and Health Care Administration and Control Authority has declared that more than 20 vital medicines are unavailable to patients. To name a few: –
• Calcium Gluconate – used by injection into a vein to treat low blood calcium, high blood potassium, and magnesium toxicity
• Propranolol – used to treat high blood pressure, a number of types of irregular heart rate, thyrotoxicosis, capillary hemangiomas, performance anxiety, and essential tremors
• Enoxaparin – an anticoagulant, used to treat and prevent deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and pulmonary embolism (PE) including during pregnancy and following certain types of surgery
• Otrivin Nasal Drops – used to improve symptoms of nasal congestion, allergic rhinitis, and sinusitis (Wikipedia)
• Anti Rho(D) Immunoglobulin
Even medicines that are not in high demand and thus, manufactured in small quantities, are also being sold on the black market at tremendous prices. What is really worrying is that some medicines, such as the Tinium Antibiotic, which require prescriptions, are being carelessly sold in the black market. This poses the problem of certain addictive medicines (a.k.a. ‘controlled substances’) being readily available to anyone who can buy them, much to the worry of medical professionals.
The major concern for the public, however, seems to be on the availability of Insulin. Over 2 million diabetic Ethiopians and their relatives are worried about its supply status. Though the Medicine Fund and Supply Agency has said that it has enough insulin reserve, recent reports by Sheger Radio, EBC and Fana TV highlight the apparent shortage of the essential diabetic medicine, causing mistrust towards the government’s statement to the contrary.
The dearth of foreign currency has also affected the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry, particularly regarding packaging supplies. The preparation of pharmaceutical drugs involves the use of various components, such as disintegrants, sweetening agents, preservatives etc. And they are all bought from foreign suppliers.
Thus, local pharmaceutical manufacturers have been unable to produce medicines to meet public demand, or to ameliorate the current shortage of even the most necessary pharmaceutical drugs.
Further Exacerbating Factors
The existing shortage of foreign currency may be the main factor in the depletion of vital medicines; however, the situation is further worsened by unethical doctors and their ‘accessories in crime’ – the brokers. Wazema Radio reports the introduction and advertising of new pharmaceutical drugs requires paying doctors to prescribe the medicines to their patients.
The payment is administered by brokers experienced in the pharmaceutical industry of Ethiopia. It has become common nowadays for brokers to represent pharmacies in the purchase of medicines from privately owned pharmacological importers. Of course, these importers are the main medicine providers for private pharmacies with the Medicine Fund and Supply Agency distributing its purchased drugs to public pharmacies and clinics. Only a few essential drugs are provided to private pharmacies by the Agency.
Due to the current currency crisis, private importers are importing less and less, leading brokers to set their own prices or otherwise ‘hide’ essential medicines to push up prices. The Trade Practice and Consumer Protection Authority had, two months ago, filed a case against eight pharmacies for ‘intentionally decreasing supply of medicines’ saying they should be held accountable for the price hikes of the drugs; the case is still ongoing.
The defendants have also been charged with gaining in excess of 100% profit from the sale of medicines. Unless the company itself does not import, distribute and retail medicines, it has to limit its profit range to within 20%, according to the limit set by the government.
Another issue that has failed to get adequate consideration is the improper modes of smuggling medicines which require certain temperatures and transportation conditions to maintain their efficacy. Drugs that are smuggled in ‘on the backs of camels’ do not adhere to the specifications of many medicines, which means even if the drugs become available they won’t be effective.
If the foreign currency situation isn’t swiftly remedied, the future for patients and their caring friends and relatives will be bleaker still!