Egyptians have taken to Twitter posting photos of prescriptions and pills to crowd source medicines that are on longer in pharmacies during a nationwide shortage.
#Twitter_Pharmacy has become a lifeline for those seeking drugs to treat debilitating diseases, from insulin for diabetes to cancer treatment. Started last month, the feed has transformed into a virtual charity space where Egyptian citizens are supporting each other by donating excess medicines, for free in some cases, to those in dire need.
The shortage has been ongoing for many years amid Egypt’s volatile economy but has worsened with the plunge the Egyptian pound has taken after it was floated earlier this month in order to secure a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.
Translation: “These are all drugs mostly for fighting cancer, rheumatoid, muscle weakness and high blood pressure. If anyone needs any of them send me a script and I’ll send back for free.”
The Health Ministry said that 146 drugs, including those for chronic diseases, were unavailable on the market, and that it would remedy the situation importing $186 million in the coming weeks. It did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Motherboard.
With a weaker currency, pharmaceutical companies have been unable to meet rising manufacturing costs and import active ingredients for certain drugs forcing them to halt production.
Yesterday, the pharmacists’ syndicate called on president Abdel Fattah El Sisi to intervene in helping pharmaceutical firms to raise medicine prices, noting that 1688 generic types of drugs requiring raw material are now rapidly vanishing.
An hour after the hashtag started to trend, Khaled Omar, 35, set up an account by the same name to help formalize the process and connect people with each other.
“As we were starting this online donation drive, we noticed that pharmacists and doctors started to join in giving tips of where specific drugs are available” he told Motherboard.
Logo for the feed. Image: Twitter
Omar, a production manager at a printing company in Cairo, was pleased that Egypt’s health ministry acknowledged the initiative as positive, but said he has not been contacted by any official. The ministry has since described the shortage as a ploy by pharmaceutical firms intent on price hikes in the wake of the float.
“We are stepping in to do the government’s job. They are running on turtle speed not dealing with this crisis,” Omar added.
However, the band-aid solution on Twitter has not been able to solve the shortage immediately. Egypt has the highest prevalence of Hepatitis C in the world, high rates of obesity and hypertension, and a population that is not covered adequately under an ailing health insurance system.
“Patients have been asking me for medicine for their heart conditions, blood pressure” said Ahmed Ali, who runs his pharmacy in an upmarket suburb of Cairo.
He enumerated a wide variety of missing imported drugs including some that prevent blood clots and strokes, and others given to pregnant women to prevent still-births in severe cases.
Translation: “We are looking for the third time for this medicine in the prescription for a 7 year old kid. Please keep your eyes open.”
“People would come in and buy a whole box of medication but now it’s one strip at a time. I am worried about the hungry and needy person in the middle of all of this,” he said.
Egypt’s parliamentary speaker Ali Abdel Aal promised Egyptians last week that a tangible solution would be found in two days. Yet, health minister Ahmed Rady in a press conference yesterday said prices would stay the same until the Egyptian pound stabilizes, but that is of little comfort to needy patients dealing with rocketing prices.
Meanwhile, both Ali and Omar expressed concerns about black market traders capitalizing on the gridlock between the pharmaceutical firms and the government as the pound worsens.
Earlier this year the military intervened to stem a crisis in baby formula and last month sugar was in short supply. However, the drug shortage is proving to be the most critical for a country that is bracing for more economic hit.
“What will people who don’t have money to buy medicine do? They’ll be dead,” Ali said.
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