As pains in Lebanon mount, cancer patients struggle to find morphine

BEIRUT: Lebanese hospitals and cancer patients lack morphine and its derivatives.

A call made by Elsy Aoun via Al-Nahar newspaper went viral on Friday. The young woman says that her brother, a cancer patient who can’t find the medicine he needs anywhere, has run out of the only medicine capable of relieving some of his pain. “We only have 10 days of morphine left. What are we supposed to do after that?

According to a March 2021 report by the World Health Organization, Lebanon recorded 28,764 cancer cases in the past five years, including 11,600 cases in 2020 alone.

Although drugs for incurable and cancerous diseases are still subsidized by the state, most drugs are running out amid the economic collapse the country has experienced over the past two years.

The Health Ministry said on Friday it had given approval to subsidize morphine before importing it two months ago, but the next approval to be issued by the central bank has been delayed.

“We have contacted the importing company and agreed to start the process without waiting for central bank approval,” the ministry said, adding that the morphine should be available on the market within a week.

There are 445 cancer drugs registered in Lebanon. The cost of treating cancer patients “is about $200 million a year, and it could reach $400 million,” according to former health minister Jamil Jabak.

Dr Ahmed Ibrahim, President of the Lebanese Society of Hematology and Blood Transfusion, said: “Every year, between 2,500 and 3,000 new cases of blood cancers are registered, in addition to thousands of patients undergoing treatment and follow-up periodic.

“The different treatments are expensive, but they lead to a cure rate ranging from 60 to 80%, which is similar to the results worldwide. With the scarcity of necessary treatments, we are faced with the possibility of not being able to treat patients, which can, unfortunately, lead to the death of many.

A Beirut hospital pharmacist, who preferred anonymity, told Arab News: “Not all drugs are available in the hospital pharmacy, and morphine is a daily need in the hospital for relieve pain in patients with stage four cancer. We need around 150-200 morphine needles per month, and the demand can go up or down depending on the condition of the patients. Not all alternatives to this drug are equally effective.

She added: “Patients and their families find it difficult to look for medicine. Some can be found on the black market, but only a wealthy few can afford them. Patients who are treated at the expense of the Ministry of Health face a real tragedy, especially since one can only have access to the drugs if one knows someone inside these days.

“Morphine is classified as a high-risk drug, and each needle given to the patient must be signed by the doctor and two nurses, specifying the volume of the substance that was given and each drop wasted.

“Only one company imports morphine, unlike other drugs. Having a single import company makes it easier to negotiate securing this drug. »

The ministry said it was making every effort to expedite the process of importing morphine and asked those concerned to make this issue a top priority.

Doctor and former MP Ismail Sukkarieh, who fights corruption in the health sector through the National Health Authority, which he chairs, said chaos reigned in the sector.

“It’s true that cancer drugs are still subsidized, but it’s more theoretical now. Medicines are not available and the key to the solution lies with the central bank. It is ridiculous that the bank still subsidizes one type of coffee but cannot provide enough money to subsidize the drugs people need to recover. Is coffee more important than human life? Sukkarieh said.

He added, “In addition to the central bank, greedy drug suppliers are the problem, as these people hide drugs in their warehouses to make illegal profits. No one confronts them – neither the ministry nor the parliamentary health committee. »

Sukkarieh said doctors see tragic situations every day. “As soon as I enter the hospital, patients or their families stop me to ask for medicine. Even my fellow doctors who treat cancer patients have become helpless in the face of human tragedies. What is really happening is the accelerated death of patients due to irregular treatment. Who has the right to shorten people’s lives like this?

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