BEIRUT: Dozens of cancer patients in Lebanon staged a demonstration on Saturday in Riad Al-Solh Square near the headquarters of the prime minister to highlight the unavailability of drugs in pharmacies and hospitals.
Protesters held banners saying, “We will tell God everything” and “Medicine will be available when you stop your corruption.”
The patients’ protest on Saturday coincided with World Cancer Day.
Joe Salloum, president of the Lebanese Order of Pharmacists, condemned, along with the Barbara Nassar Association for Cancer Patient Support, “the genocide committed against the patients by depriving them of cancer medication.”
Salloum is one of the organizers of the protest taking place in Beirut.
Joyce, a protester in her 40s, said: “Medicine is unavailable. I cannot buy it myself because I cannot cover its costs, but I get it from an association that supports cancer patients in Lebanon.”
Joyce, who suffers from breast cancer and needs an eight-year-long treatment, added: “If the government decides to lift subsidies on cancer medication as it has been reported lately, what am I going to do? The ruling class is no longer subsidizing anything, but it can at least keep the subsidies on the medication so we can stay alive.”
Karim Gebara, head of the Lebanese Pharmaceutical Importers, believes there is a drug shortage because the funds available for their purchase are not enough to cover the needs of all Lebanese patients.
Gebara said that importers no longer play a key role when it comes to the amount of imported drugs. Instead, it is the Health Ministry that decides the quantity and type of drugs and who will receive them, Gebara added.
Patients and activists supporting them wore black during their protest on Saturday, mourning cancer victims who died last year because they could not receive their treatment on time.
They charged that the state is “trying to kill and exterminate them.”
Last year, cancer patients carried and smashed a wooden coffin symbolizing their death caused by the lack of medicine and inability to receive treatment.
In an exclusive interview with Arab News, caretaker Health Minister Firass Abiad said that cancer patients have a right to be worried, but the ministry has not lifted subsidies on medications for cancer and incurable diseases.
“What happened is that we substituted eight expensive medications with generic ones from international companies,” he said.
“Moreover, the price of one branded medication pack equals the price of two generic medication packs, meaning that for the price of one branded medication pack, I can give two patients two generic medication packs. This does not mean that subsidies were lifted as interpreted by some people.”
Abiad stressed that one of the ministry’s priorities is to secure medication and treatment for patients suffering from cancer and incurable diseases, adding that their numbers range between 20,000 and 30,000.
He said the computerized system the ministry has set up to track subsidized medications, such as those for cancer and incurable diseases, has the aim of providing fair treatment.
It has, to date, detected many loopholes, including how some people would acquire expensive cancer medications under the names of deceased patients or in a quantity that exceeds their needs, said Abiad.
Now, the minister said 90 percent of the subsidized medications are going to the right place and the ministry is in the process of adding more medications to the tracking system.
The Ministry of Health has previously warned against smuggling subsidized cancer drugs outside Lebanon and using counterfeit or expired drugs smuggled inside Lebanon. Several hospitals have documented dozens of samples that, upon inspection, were found to be mixed with water and salt.
According to patients, subsidized medications do not arrive on time, which messes up the schedule of treatment sessions, leading to the deterioration of patients’ health conditions.
Abiad said complaints stem from the fact that drug companies no longer keep extra stock in their warehouses because of Lebanon’s current financial straits, causing a delay.
“Previously, we were suffering from the lack of drugs. Now we suffer from their late arrival. We are continuously working under tough circumstances. Public sector employees are still on strike, and we are doing everything we can,” he said.
Patients who can no longer find their medications are either importing them or opting for alternatives from Turkiye, Armenia, India, Iran and Syria.
The funds the Ministry of Health has allocated for medications for cancer and incurable diseases decreased from $45 million to $35 million per month, due to Lebanon’s current economic crisis.
Abiad said: “Of those funds, $12 million was allocated to cancer and incurable diseases. Now that we have lifted the subsidies on medicines for other diseases, we have directed financial savings to medicines for cancer and incurable diseases and raised the allocated amount to $25 million.”
The Cabinet is set to meet next week to discuss an agenda of “necessary, urgent and emergency topics.”
The agenda includes three points related to securing the needs of the Ministry of Health for the purchase of drugs for cancer and incurable diseases, dialysis supplies and primary materials for the pharmaceutical industry, in addition to the payment of social assistance to workers in government hospitals.
Ismail Sukkarieh, head of the “Health is a Right and Dignity” campaign, told Arab News: “There are dozens of files related to price manipulation, counterfeit drugs, the smuggling of drugs from the Ministry of Health that are then sold on the black market and outside Lebanon.
“These files weren’t appropriately addressed by the Parliament, the parties or the educated elites. This gave the drug mafia the green light and allowed it to exploit the health of cancer patients by withholding medications and reselling them for obscene prices on the black market.”