‘People are dying’: crisis-stricken Sri Lanka has run out of medicines | Sri Lanka

Chandrapala Weerasuriya cannot remember when he last took his medication. The 67-year-old retired businessman, who lives in the Gampaha district of Sri Lanka, has always relied on a drug to keep his hereditary nerve condition that leaves him dizzy and unable to walk.

But since his prescription recently ran out, he can’t get a new supply. The drug is simply no longer available in Sri Lanka.

“I’m afraid I’ll be paralyzed because there’s no one to take care of us,” he said nervously. “My wife and I do everything alone. We divide the household tasks and arrange it among ourselves. My wife has a knee problem and can barely walk.”

Sri Lanka’s financial crisis, the worst since independence, is quickly turning into an alarming health crisis. The government’s treasury has fallen to its all-time low and last week the country was forced to default on its international loans for the first time in its history. Without vital foreign currency, Sri Lanka has not been able to import the essentials: food, fuel and medicines.

Sri Lanka imports over 80% of its medical supplies. Now there is a shortage of nearly 200 medical items, including 76 essential, life-saving drugs, from blood thinners for heart attack and stroke patients to antibiotics, rabies vaccines and cancer chemotherapy drugs. Essential surgical equipment and anesthesia are running out so quickly that this week it was decided to only allow emergency surgery, mainly heart and cancer patients. All routine surgeries — from hernias to swollen appendixes — have been suspended. Some government hospitals have been instructed to admit only emergency patients.

“In the end, people are definitely going to die,” said a doctor in Colombo who had been told not to speak to the media.

She described how the hospital had so few medicines that they had to instruct patients’ families to go to the pharmacy and buy it themselves. “There have been incidents where the family members walked around looking for medicine and by the time they came back with the medicine it was too late and the patient has died,” she said.

The doctor said the shortages were getting worse. “I’m concerned about pregnant mothers because soon I don’t know if we’ll have enough medicine to perform cesarean deliveries,” she said.

Cancer drugs, which are notoriously expensive to import, have been particularly hard hit by shortages in recent weeks, and the responsibility to buy them has fallen on the heads of oncologists themselves. They have launched global appeals for donations and written letters to private supporters, organizations and governments to ensure cancer treatments are not delayed.

dr. Buddhika Somawardana, an oncologist at Colombo’s largest cancer hospital, described the “great stress” he and other doctors had when essential cancer drugs began to run out or became unavailable at all more than a month ago.

“One of the drugs that we give patients undergoing chemotherapy that raises their blood counts so that they are not prone to serious infections is no longer available,” he said. “So far we have managed to get a donation of 80,000 vials. But that won’t be long.”

He added: “Somehow, thanks to donations, we managed it for the most part without major problems. But we had to postpone some chemotherapy, which can have adverse effects on cancer outcome.”

Somawardana said the crisis places a huge “financial and psychological burden” on cancer patients, who have had to buy and pay huge amounts of money for their own medicines to continue their treatment, previously free and easily accessible in hospitals under the acclaimed universal health care system of Sri Lanka. †

Cancer doctors, too, felt the pressure to be the ones to both rely on global drug donations and treat their patients. “I didn’t know how long we could go on like this,” he said.

Ruvaiz Haniffa, a doctor in Colombo, expressed frustration that doctors “had seen this coming as early as January”, but authorities had done little to put in place backup plans to ensure there were no shortage of drugs, even when the country’s foreign reserves began to run out. exhausting to alarmingly low levels.

“As doctors, we face major ethical dilemmas,” Haniffa says. “We used to have a very efficient health system. But at the moment it has become ineffective. More people will die, which is not acceptable.”

He said his patients were forced to find their own drugs and pay prices more than 40% higher, if they could find them at all. Haniffa said many of his patients had to choose between medicine or school fees for their children or fuel to get them to work.

Haniffa said he fears the long-term effects on the life expectancy of Sri Lankans. “With the kidney disease and the diabetes and hypertension that we’re not treating now, it’s causing long-term damage,” he said. “So in five years we’ll see strokes increase, heart attacks increase, neurological problems increase, cancers increase.”

With the newly appointed Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, recently warning that the situation “would only get worse” and that Sri Lankans face tough months, those without drugs said they face an uncertain future. On Sunday, India delivered 25 tons of medical supplies to the country, while France donated essential equipment, but most healthcare workers say Sri Lanka cannot rely on donations forever.

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Among those riddled with fear was Sushantha Weerasuriya, 42, who has struggled to get his hands on his epilepsy drug and traveled long distances to track down a few pills. Even if he manages to find the medicines, they will be nearly impossible for him to afford, totaling 10,000 rupees (£22) in May.

But once he stops taking the medication, he has regular seizures, causing him to lose consciousness and be unable to work.

“If I don’t have it for five days, the condition will return and continue non-stop, which I am really afraid of,” he said. “I am the main breadwinner in my family and I have to support my wife and four-year-old daughter. But when the condition comes, I can’t work. If the medication stops completely, my family’s livelihood will be at risk,” he said.

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