cHandrapala Wirasuria does not remember the last time he took the drug. The 67-year-old retired businessman, who lives in the Gampaha district of Sri Lanka, has always relied on medication to control his innate tension, which makes him feel dizzy and unable to walk.
But since his prescription recently expired, he can’t refill. The drug is simply no longer available in Sri Lanka.
“I am afraid I will be paralyzed because there is no one to take care of us,” he said worriedly. “My wife and I do everything on our own. We divide the housework and do it among ourselves. My wife has knee problems and can barely walk.”
Sri Lanka’s financial crisis, the worst since independence, is fast turning into an alarming public health crisis. Treasuries slumped to an all-time low, and last week the country defaulted on its international loans for the first time in its history. Without significant foreign currency, Sri Lanka was unable to import the necessities: food, fuel – and medicine.
Sri Lanka imports more than 80% of its medical supplies. Nearly 200 medical supplies are now in short supply, including 76 essential life-saving medicines, from blood thinners for heart attack and stroke patients to antibiotics, rabies vaccines and chemotherapy drugs for cancer. Critical surgical equipment and anesthetics are running out so quickly that this week the decision was made to only perform emergency surgeries, mostly for heart and cancer patients. All routine surgeries – from hernia to swollen appendicitis – have been suspended. Some government hospitals have been instructed to accept emergency patients only.
“In the end, people will surely die,” said a doctor in Colombo who was told not to speak to the media.
She described how the hospital was so short of some medicines that they had to instruct patients’ families to go to pharmacies and try to buy them themselves. “There were incidents where family members were running to look for medicine and when they came back with the medicine it was too late and the patient died,” she said.
The doctor said the deficiency is getting worse. “I’m worried about expectant mothers because I don’t know if we’ll have enough medication for a caesarean section anytime soon,” she said.
Cancer drugs, which are known to be expensive to import, have been hit hard by shortages in recent weeks, and the responsibility for acquiring them lies with the oncologists themselves. They have solicited worldwide donations and written letters to supporters, organizations and private 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 faced when essential cancer drugs ran out or became unavailable more than a month ago.
“One of the drugs that we give to patients undergoing chemotherapy, which increases their blood count so that they are not at risk of developing a serious infection, is no longer available,” he said. So far we have been able to donate 80,000 bottles. But this won’t last long.”
He added, “Somehow, thanks to the donations, we were able to get by without much trouble for the most part. But we had to postpone some chemotherapy, which can have a negative impact on the outcome of the cancer.”
Somawardana said the crisis is placing an enormous “financial and psychological burden” on cancer patients, who have to obtain and pay huge amounts of money for their medicines in order to continue their treatment, which was previously free and easily accessible in Sri Lanka-affiliated hospitals.
Cancer doctors also felt pressure to be the ones who should solicit global drug donations and treat their patients. “I didn’t know how long we could go on like this,” he said.
Ruviz Hanifa, a doctor in Colombo, expressed frustration that doctors “saw it as early as January” but authorities did little to put in place backup plans to ensure they did not run out of drugs, even as the country’s foreign exchange reserves began depleting to dramatic low levels. to worry.
“As doctors, we face huge ethical dilemmas,” Hanifa said. “We used to have a very efficient healthcare system. But now it has become ineffective. More people will die, which is unacceptable.”
He said his patients have to search for their own drugs and pay 40% higher prices if they can find them. Hanifa said that many of his patients are forced to choose between medication, paying school fees for their children, or fuel to go to work.
Hanifa said he feared the long-term impact on Sri Lanka’s life expectancy. “With kidney disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure that we don’t treat now, it does long-term damage,” he said. “So in five years we will see an increase in strokes, an increase in heart attacks, an increase in neurological problems, an increase in cancer.”
After new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe recently warned that the situation was “going to get worse” and difficult months awaited the people of Sri Lanka, those without medicine said they faced an uncertain future. India on Sunday shipped 25 tons of medical supplies to the country, while France donated some essential equipment, but most health workers say Sri Lanka cannot count on donations forever.
Among those concerned was Suzantha Wierasuria, 42, who struggled to get epilepsy medication and traveled long distances to track down some pills. Even when he managed to find the drugs, it became almost impossible for him to afford them, totaling 10,000 rupees (£22) in May.
However, once he stops taking the medication, he has regular fits that cause him to lose consciousness and become unable to work.
“If you go five days without it, the condition will come back and it’s still going, which I’m really afraid of,” he said. I am the main breadwinner for my family and I have to support my wife and my four year old daughter. But when the condition comes, I can’t work. “If the drugs are stopped completely, my family’s livelihood will be in danger,” he added.