BLANTYRE — Malawi's government hospitals are experiencing critical shortages of medicines because of theft. Doctors are now pressuring the government to intervene.
Drug shortages in Malawi’s public hospitals are nothing new. But, health authorities say the situation has reached a critical tipping point. The majority of patients cannot get treatment at public hospitals and doctors are rationing the few medications they do have.
Doctors are now demanding the government take immediate and effective action. The medical staff at the Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe has sent an “Open Letter” to President Joyce Banda - asking her to intervene to stop public hospitals from becoming what they say are “waiting rooms for death.”
Health Minister Catherine Gotani Hara acknowledges the situation is dire, saying the country’s national drug warehouse, the Central Medical Stores, has nearly run out of all essential medicines.
“Indeed the country is experiencing acute shortage of drugs. As we are talking now, in terms of stock levels at medical stores, they are at 95 percent stock out. We only have five percent of drugs that we are supposed to be stocking at central medical stores. So, we are indeed at very acute levels of drug shortage,” said Gotani.
Medical supplies are also in short supply - including syringes, cotton swabs and antiseptic.
The Health Ministry’s principle secretary, Charles Mwansambo, blames the situation on what he says is drug theft by medical workers.
“I need to accept that a handful of medical workers are involved in this bad practice," he said. "They collude with outsiders to deprive Malawians of the medicines. So as a ministry we are looking into this issue seriously and also we are calling upon the general public to help us apprehend some of these culprits because they are staying out there in our midst and we know it, we see it and we don’t come forward to report.”
Police have arrested two Central Medical Stores officials for allegedly misappropriating drugs meant for Salima district hospitals and a medical technician at the Chiradzulu district hospital for allegedly forging documents and misappropriating drugs worth thousands of dollars.
Central Medical Stores officials say they are undertaking major reforms to improve security to curb drug theft. Feston Kaupa is its chief executive officer.
“We are improving security our warehouses, procurement and distribution systems [to avoid] cases where the whole truck would go missing with drugs," said Kaupa. "Now the systems that we will be installing will enable us track all our delivery vans wherever they are going. They will be on a kind of under-surveillance systems.”
However, Kaupa says it will still take a while before drugs are restocked to the required levels - citing lengthy procedures required in drug procurement.
“If we talk about 100 percent capacity of stocks in our warehouse, it will take a bit of time. But, the steps we are taking like the international bidding is for nine months consumption," said Kaupa. "So, at least when we will have all the deliveries made which we expect to be done immediately, contracts are being awarded, we expect the deliveries to be done within 12 weeks.”
President Banda told parliament earlier this month, that her government inherited a slew of problems with drug distribution to the public hospitals from the previous administration. She sought to assure lawmakers her government is working on plans to decentralize operations in the state hospital and Central Medical Stores systems and increase the budget for the Ministry of Health. She also says, in the short run, her government will start purchasing drugs directly from the manufacturers without involving the vendors - to decrease the opportunities for theft.