Many developing countries face a dearth of effective and affordable medicines - a gap that has been partly met by exporting unused medications from richer nations. But a European Union directive now bans member states from exporting unused medications. The directive went into effect in France this year - and is creating difficulties for some charities.
For years, the Paris-based Order of Malta has been sending unused medicines to developing countries, many of them in Africa. The Christian charity receives about 15-hundred tons of unused medications every year.
The group says pharmaceutical experts are careful to discard those that have expired or are inappropriate, and it only responds to specific requests by hospitals or other clinics in developing countries.
Alain de Tonquedec, a spokesman for Order of Malta, says the top demands are for medicines that treat digestive and cardiovascular problems, which are leading causes of death in Africa. The charity also sends medicines that help treat blood problems for women after they have given birth.
Local dispensaries run by the charity in various developing countries sell the drugs at cut-rate prices - and use the profits to buy new medicines.
But De Tonquedec says a new European measure that took effect here January first prohibits the charity from exporting unused - and free - medicines, which are valued at about $2.5 million. De Tonquedec says the measure aims to bar bad medicines from reaching needy patients in poor countries.
Some unprofessional associations had been exporting medicines that had expired or did not match the needs - for example, weight loss medicines to countries where people faced malnutrition. But the measure also means reputable groups no longer have access to free medicines.
Order of Malta spokesman Alain de Tonquedec estimates that about one million people benefit from the low-cost drugs.
De Tonquedec says another French charity, Doctors Without Borders, faces the same predicament. He says the Order of Malta is committed to meeting the needs of poor patients. But that means it must now raise millions of dollars now needed to buy the medicines.