Clock ticking for Lebanese cancer patients as shortages bite

Lebanese demonstrate in front of the UN headquarters in Beirut as shortages of cancer medications spread. (Reuters)
Lebanese demonstrate in front of the UN headquarters in Beirut as shortages of cancer medications spread. (Reuters)
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Updated 28 August 2021

Clock ticking for Lebanese cancer patients as shortages bite

Lebanese demonstrate in front of the UN headquarters in Beirut as shortages of cancer medications spread. (Reuters)
  • "We need an immediate solution. I can’t tell my patients this is a crisis and ask them to wait till it eases because this disease has no patience"

BEIRUT: Christine Tohme had already been diagnosed with ovarian cancer when Lebanon’s financial system began to unravel in 2019. She never expected that two years later her country’s economic meltdown would pose a direct threat to her life.
The 50-year-old was later diagnosed with third stage colon cancer in February. Having undergone surgery earlier this year, she was then prescribed six sessions of chemotherapy.
But with shortages of basic goods plaguing every aspect of Lebanese life, Tohme was told there was no guarantee she would complete her treatment as hospitals run out of vital drugs.
So far she has only undergone three sessions. Her cancer has metastasized to her lymph nodes and she fears if she cannot complete her treatment she will only have months to live.
Having knocked on every door to try to secure her medication at any cost, Tohme took to the streets on Thursday, despite her ailing health, to join a sit-in protest with other cancer patients, doctors and nongovernmental organizations.
“I’m hoping that God gives me strength, as I don’t have that much, to stand on my two feet and take part so that maybe people will see us and sympathize with us and send us treatment,” Tohme told Reuters two days before the event. “I have kids, I want to be happy with them and see them get married and become a grandmother.”
Lebanese healthcare workers have warned for months of declining stocks of vital medical supplies. Many pharmacy shelves are empty as the country’s foreign reserves are depleted on the back of a subsidy scheme used to finance fuel, wheat and medicine that cost the state around $6 billion a year.
This month the central bank declared it could no longer finance fuel imports at subsidized exchange rates because its dollar reserves had been so badly depleted.
Tohme’s case is not unique. Dr. Joseph Makdessi, who heads the hematology and oncology department at the Saint George Hospital University Medical Center, estimates around 10 percent of cancer patients have been unable to source their treatment in the past couple of months.
“We need an immediate solution,” Makdessi said. “I can’t tell my patients this is a crisis and ask them to wait till it eases because this disease has no patience.”
Lebanon’s deeply indebted state is struggling to raise funds from abroad amidst political paralysis and has gradually eradicated many subsidies.
But cancer medications are still subsidised, meaning in order for agents to import them they have to wait for financing from the central bank, which has all but run down its reserves.
Yet Dr. Makdessi isn’t optimistic that easing subsidies on cancer drugs will solve his patients’ pressing problem.
Some chemotherapy treatments, which can cost as much as $5,000 per session, are currently subsidized so the patient pays around $400, with the state bearing the rest of the cost.
“Even if you lift this subsidy to make the medication available, many patients won’t be able to afford it,” he said.
The Health Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hassan, who has been raiding depots storing large quantities of drugs and medical supplies, partly blamed the shortages on traders hoarding supplies.
The Barbara Nassar Association for Cancer Patient Support, the Lebanese advocacy group that organized Thursday’s sit-in, has provided medication worth more than $1.5 million in 2020 through in-kind donations from former patients.
But now Hani Nassar, whose wife Barbara founded the organization before passing away from the disease years ago, says the country’s fractious politics is hampering efforts to alleviate the problem.
“The central bank wants to remove the subsidy and the Health Ministry doesn’t and in the meantime the patient is sitting there without treatment,” Nassar said.
At Thursday’s sit-in, patients said they were reaching out to whoever could help them get a second chance at life. “After all I endured, I lost my nails and hair and my body changed, now I reached this point of not finding the treatment and this really set me back,” engineer Bahaa Costantine said.
“I was a person who was full of energy and loves life, I don’t want to be a bride for heaven, this is what I refuse. I hope my voice reaches someone who can help.”


Unvaccinated government employees to be banned from entering workplace, says Egyptian PM

Unvaccinated government employees to be banned from entering workplace, says Egyptian PM
Updated 17 October 2021

Unvaccinated government employees to be banned from entering workplace, says Egyptian PM

Unvaccinated government employees to be banned from entering workplace, says Egyptian PM
  • Health minister announced a second arrival of 1.6 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine at Cairo airport
  • The doses were provided by the US through the global COVAX initiative

CAIRO: Unvaccinated government employees will be banned from entering their workplace, Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly said, as the health minister spoke of the quantity and variety of jabs available and the expansion of specialist centers administering them.

“It must be ensured that all workers in the administrative authorities of the governorates are vaccinated, and soon any employee who has not been vaccinated will not be allowed to enter, especially with the wide availability of vaccines,” he told a meeting.

He called for awareness campaigns in governorates explaining the importance of vaccines, especially since the Ministry of Health was ready to provide any required quantity during this stage.

“We have 60.5 million doses of vaccines and, by the end of this month, the number of available vaccines will reach 70 million," said Dr. Hala Zayed, who is the minister of health and population. 

She acknowledged the importance of awareness campaigns and in taking the necessary measures to encourage citizens to get jabbed.

She said the number of vaccination centers had been increased and that, in the coming period, they would be established in areas frequented by citizens. These locations would include courts, traffic departments, metro stations, trains, and in front of mosques and churches on Fridays and Sundays.

The centers were for any governorate that requested them and the goal was to vaccinate citizens quickly.

Zayed said Egypt had started manufacturing vaccines and that, starting next week, the manufacturing technology would be transferred from its Chinese partner.

She also announced a second arrival of 1.6 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine at Cairo International Airport, provided by the US through the global COVAX initiative.

Khaled Megahed, from the ministry, said the Pfizer vaccine had approval for use from both the World Health Organization and the Egyptian Drug Authority.

The shipment of vaccines received would be analyzed in the authority’s laboratories before being distributed to 1,100 vaccination centers.

The first shipment of Pfizer vaccines, also 1.6 million doses, was received last September as part of a series of shipments provided by the US to Egypt.


Arab coalition: 165 Houthis killed, 10 military vehicles destroyed in Abedia

Arab coalition: 165 Houthis killed, 10 military vehicles destroyed in Abedia
Updated 17 October 2021

Arab coalition: 165 Houthis killed, 10 military vehicles destroyed in Abedia

Arab coalition: 165 Houthis killed, 10 military vehicles destroyed in Abedia
  • The US has called on the Houthis to stop their offensive on Marib
  • The coalition announced on Saturday that it had killed 160 Houthis and destroyed 11 military vehicles in Abedia

RIYADH: The Arab coalition said on Sunday that 165 Houthis had been killed and ten military vehicles destroyed in operations in Marib’s Abedia district.

The coalition said it had carried out 41 operations targeting Houthis in Abedia and surrounding villages during the last 24 hours.

Abedia is a district in Yemen’s Marib which has been under a Houthi siege since Sept. 23, hindering the movement of civilians and impeding humanitarian aid flows.

The Houthis continue to carry out their terrorist operations against civilians and prevent medical aid from reaching patients in Abedia, the coalition said.

On Saturday, the US called on the Houthis to stop their offensive on Marib, and listen to the urgent calls from across Yemen and the international community to bring this conflict to an end and support a UN-led inclusive peace process.

“The Houthis are obstructing movement of people and humanitarian aid, preventing essential services from reaching the 35,000 residents of Abedia,” a US State Department statement said.

“The US urges the Houthis to immediately permit safe passage for civilians, life-saving aid, and the wounded. As the UN stated this week, it stands ready with its partners to provide this much needed assistance to the people of Marib,” the statement added.

The coalition announced on Saturday that it had killed 160 Houthis and destroyed 11 military vehicles in similar operations in Abedia.


Syrian constitutional committee agrees to start drafting constitutional reform: UN envoy

Syrian constitutional committee agrees to start drafting constitutional reform: UN envoy
Updated 17 October 2021

Syrian constitutional committee agrees to start drafting constitutional reform: UN envoy

Syrian constitutional committee agrees to start drafting constitutional reform: UN envoy
  • Syrian government and opposition co-chair meeting for first time, agree to launch process for drafting constitutional reform
  • Pedersen says the Syrian Constitutional Committee is an important contribution to the political process but will not be able to solve the political crisis itself

BEIRUT: Syria’s government and opposition in the war-torn country have agreed to start drafting constitutional reforms, the UN Syria envoy announced Sunday, a major step after a nine-month hiatus of talks and several fruitless rounds.
UN special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen didn’t say what was behind the agreement or offer details of what comes next. The drafting sessions formally begin Monday.
Pedersen met Sunday with the co-chairs of a committee which includes figures from fourth-term President Bashar Assad’s government, as well as exiles and civil society representatives. The two sat together for the first time to discuss how to proceed, and plans for the week ahead, Pedersen said.
Thirty representatives divided between the two sides, along with 15 members of civil society, will be meeting with Pedersen in Geneva until Friday.
“I have been negotiating between the parties to establish a consensus on how we are going to move forward. I am very pleased to say we have reached such consensus,” Pedersen told reporters, appealing to all parties to maintain the spirit.
“My appeal for the 45 (members) is that we work as we have agreed to, and that we now start the drafting process of the constitutional committee,” he said.
The last round of talks ended in January without progress. Pedersen announced late September an agreement on “methodology” for a sixth round. It’s based on three pillars: respect for rules of procedure, the submission of texts of “basic constitutional principles” ahead of the meeting, and regular meetings of the co-chairs with him before and during the meeting.
Syria’s 10-year conflict has killed over 350,000 people and displaced half the country’s pre-war 23 million population, including more than 5 million refugees mostly in neighboring countries.
At a Russia-hosted Syrian peace conference in January 2018, an agreement was reached to form a 150-member committee to draft a new constitution.
The 2012 United Nations’ road map to peace in Syria calls for the drafting of a new constitution and ends with UN-supervised elections with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate.
After the fifth round of negotiations failed in late January, Pedersen hinted the Syrian government delegation was to blame for the lack of progress.
The United States and several Western allies accused Assad of deliberately stalling and delaying the drafting of a new constitution until after presidential elections to avoid a UN-supervised vote, as called for by the Security Council.
In late May, Assad was re-elected in what the government called a landslide for a fourth seven-year term. The West and his opposition described the election as illegitimate and a sham.
Pedersen said the need for “a genuine intra-Syrian dialogue” was reportedly discussed by Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin recently in Moscow, “and through this, a genuine process of Syrian political reform.”


Jordan says no current plans to operate flights to Syria

Jordan says no current plans to operate flights to Syria
Updated 17 October 2021

Jordan says no current plans to operate flights to Syria

Jordan says no current plans to operate flights to Syria

CAIRO: Jordan’s Civil Aviation Regulatory Commission said that there are no current plans to operate flights between Jordan and Syria, state news agency PETRA reported on Sunday.
Jordan’s state carrier, Royal Jordanian, said in September it would resume direct flights to Damascus for the first time in nearly a decade, in what would have been the latest step to restore extensive business ties with Syria.

More to follow...


Pro-army protesters rally again in tense Sudan

Pro-army protesters rally again in tense Sudan
Updated 17 October 2021

Pro-army protesters rally again in tense Sudan

Pro-army protesters rally again in tense Sudan
  • Latest developments come after government said it had thwarted a coup attempt on September 21
  • On Friday, Hamdok warned that the transition is facing its “worst and most dangerous” crisis

KHARTOUM: Hundreds of pro-military Sudanese protesters rallied for a second day Sunday, aggravating what Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok called the “worst and most dangerous crisis” of the country’s precarious transition.
The protesters rallying in Khartoum are demanding the dissolution of Sudan’s post-dictatorship interim government, saying it has “failed” them politically and economically.
“The sit-in continues, we will not leave until the government is dismissed,” Ali Askouri, one of the organizers, told AFP.
“We have officially asked the Sovereign Council,” the military-civilian body that oversees the transition, “not to interact with this government anymore,” he added.
The protests come as Sudanese politics reels from divisions among the factions steering the rocky transition from three decades of iron-fisted rule by Omar Al-Bashir.
Bashir was ousted by the army in April 2019 in the face of mass protests driven by the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), a civilian alliance that became a key plank of the transition.
The latest demonstrations, left undisturbed by security forces, have been organized by a splinter faction of the FFC. Critics allege that these protests are being driven by members of the military and security forces, and involve counter-revolutionary sympathizers with the former regime.
The protesters have converged on the presidential palace where the transitional authorities are based, shouting “One army, one people” and demanding “a military government.”
Poverty stricken Sudan has undergone dramatic changes since the ouster of Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, where a conflict that began in 2003 killed 300,000 people.
The United States removed Sudan from its state sponsors of terrorism blacklist in December 2020, eliminating a major hurdle to much-needed aid and investment.
But domestic support for the transitional government has waned in recent months amid a tough package of IMF-backed economic reforms, including the slashing of fuel subsidies and a managed float of the Sudanese pound.
The latest developments come after the government said on September 21 it had thwarted a coup attempt which it blamed on both military officers and civilians linked to Bashir’s regime.
On Friday, Hamdok warned that the transition is facing its “worst and most dangerous” crisis.
Hamdok’s Minister of Finance Jibril Ibrahim on Saturday addressed the crowd demanding the resignation of the government.
The mainstream faction of the FFC said the crisis “is engineered by some parties to overthrow the revolutionary forces... paving the way for the return of remnants of the previous regime.”
Jaafar Hassan, spokesman for the FFC, called the pro-military sit-in “an episode in the scenario of a coup d’etat.”
Its aim, he told AFP, was “to block the road to democracy because the participants in this sit-in are supporters of the former regime and foreign parties whose interests have been affected by the revolution.”
The demonstration heightens tensions ahead of a rival rally planned for Thursday by the opposite side, to demand a full transfer of power to civilians.
Hassan said the FFC organizers aim for “a demonstration of one million people ... to show the world the position of the Sudanese people.”