cHandrapala Wierasuria does not remember the last time he took the drug. The 67-year-old retired businessman, who lives in the Gampaha district of Sri Lanka, has always been dependent on a drug to banish his genetic neurological condition, which makes him feel dizzy and unable to walk.
But since his prescription recently ran out, he couldn’t get another supply. The drug is simply not available in Sri Lanka anymore.
“I am afraid I will be paralyzed because there is no one to take care of us,” he said worriedly. “My wife and I do everything on our own. We divide the housework and run it between us. My wife has a knee problem and can barely walk.”
Sri Lanka’s financial crisis, the worst since independence, is quickly turning into an alarming health crisis. Government coffers are at an all-time low, and last week the country has been She had to default on her international loans for the first time in her history. Without a significant foreign currency, Sri Lanka was unable to import the necessities: food, fuel, and medicine.
Sri Lanka imports more than 80% of its medical supplies. There are now a shortage of nearly 200 medical items, including 76 essential life-saving drugs, from blood thinners for heart attack and stroke patients to antibiotics, rabies vaccines and chemotherapy drugs for cancer. Basic surgical equipment and anesthesia are running out so quickly that the decision was made this week to go ahead with emergency surgeries only, mostly for heart and cancer patients. All routine surgeries – anything from a hernia to a swollen appendix – have been suspended. Some government hospitals have been instructed to accept emergency patients only.
“In the end, people will surely die,” said a doctor in Colombo who was told not to speak to the media.
She described how the hospital was so low on some drugs that they had to instruct patients’ families to go to pharmacies and try to buy them themselves. “There were incidents where family members went looking for drugs and by the time they came back with the medication, it was too late and the patient died,” she said.
The doctor said the deficiency is getting worse. “I’m worried about expectant mothers because soon I don’t know if we’ll have enough medicine for caesarean sections,” she said.
Cancer drugs, which are notorious for their expensive imports, have been hit particularly hard by shortages in recent weeks, and the responsibility for acquiring them lies with the oncologists themselves. They have been making global appeals for donations, writing letters to private supporters, organizations and governments, to ensure that cancer treatment is not delayed.
Dr Buddhika Somawardana, an oncologist at the largest cancer hospital in Colombo, described the ‘great stress’ he and other doctors had been experiencing as basic cancer medicines had been running out for over a month or no longer available at all.
“One of the drugs that we give to patients undergoing chemotherapy, which increases their blood counts so that they are not at risk of developing serious infections, is not available any more,” he said. So far, we have been able to get donations of 80,000 vials. But this won’t last long.”
He added, “Somehow, thanks to the donations, we were mostly getting through without any major issues. But we had to postpone some of the chemotherapy, which may have adverse effects on the outcome of the cancer.”
Somawardana said the crisis was placing a huge “financial and psychological burden” on cancer patients, who had to obtain and pay huge amounts of money for their medicines to continue their treatment, which was previously free and easily accessible in hospitals under Sri Lanka’s universal healthcare system. .
Cancer doctors were also feeling the pressure of having to be the ones calling for global drug donations, as well as treating their patients. “I didn’t know how long we would be able to continue like this,” he said.
Ruviz Hanifa, a doctor in Colombo, expressed frustration that doctors “saw this coming in January” but authorities did little to make back-up plans to ensure there was no shortage of medicines, even as the country’s foreign exchange reserves kicked in. Depleted to alarming low levels.
“As doctors, we face huge ethical dilemmas,” Hanifa said. “We used to have a very efficient health system. But at the moment, it has become ineffective. More people will die, which is unacceptable.”
He said his patients were forced to find their own drugs and pay 40% higher prices, if they could find them at all. Hanifa said that many of his patients are forced to choose between medication, paying school fees for their children, or fuel to get them to work.
Hanifa said he feared the long-term effects on Sri Lanka’s life expectancy. “With kidney disease, diabetes and high blood pressure that we don’t treat now, it causes long-term damage,” he said. “So in five years, we’ll see higher rates of strokes, more heart attacks, more neurological problems, and higher rates of cancer.”
With the newly appointed prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, recently warning that the situation was “going to get worse” and Sri Lankans facing difficult months ahead, those without medication said they faced an uncertain future. On Sunday, India delivered 25 tons of medical supplies to the country while France donated some essential equipment, but most health care workers say Sri Lanka cannot count on donations forever.
Among those struggling with anxiety was Susantha Wierasuria, 42, who struggled to get her epilepsy medication, traveling long distances to track down a few pills. Even when he managed to find the drugs, they became nearly impossible to afford, totaling 10,000 rupees (£22) in May.
But once he stops taking the medication, he starts having regular fits, causing him to lose consciousness and not be able to work.
“If you stay without it for five days, then the condition will come back and continue non-stop, which I really fear,” he said. I am the main breadwinner for my family and I have to support my wife and my four year old daughter. But when the condition comes, I can’t work. If the medication is stopped completely, my family’s livelihood is in danger.