HARARE – A critical shortage of drugs is looming in Zimbabwe as pharmacies struggle to stock due to biting foreign currency challenges, which have forced them to hike prices of essential medicines.
Zimbabwe is relying on foreign imports for its drugs, equipment and hospital consumables and imports over $400 million worth of basic drugs each year.
The importation of drugs and essential medicines has been further worsened by the troubles at the country’s biggest pharmaceutical company — CAPS Holdings — which used to satisfy 75 percent of the country’s market.
Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association of Zimbabwe chairperson, Emmanuel Mujuru, told the Daily News yesterday that they have been severely affected by the foreign currency situation in the country.
“We have not been able to access foreign currency on time despite the fact that we are on the priority list.
“That’s why there has been an increase in prices and a shortage of some drugs,” Mujuru said.
In terms of Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) arrangements, pharmaceutical companies willing to import finished medicines or raw materials approach their banks and request payment of certain specific amounts to their foreign trading partner through the bank’s nostro accounts.
Nostro accounts are accounts that banks in foreign currency with another bank outside the country.
The bank would then request approval from the RBZ, which then does its allocations depending on the available foreign currency reserves
However, recently, there have been serious challenges in accessing foreign currency despite the RBZ having the pharmaceutical industry on its top priority list.
Drug companies say that wholesalers have stopped the purchase of widely prescribed medication like painkillers, anti-retroviral drugs, antibiotics and drugs to cure non communicable diseases — part of the national list of essential medicines — mainly due difficulties in accessing foreign currency allocations from the central bank.
The situation has had a serious knock-on effect as pharmaceutical wholesalers and retailers have been forced to significantly increase the cost of some major drugs as a stop-gap measure to remain in business.
The delay in foreign currency provisions by the RBZ means that manufacturers could not import raw materials on time while wholesalers are also failing to restock as overseas supplies require foreign currency.
Players in the pharmaceutical industry fear that most hospitals could run dry if the situation is not addressed soon.
Prices of some common over-the-counter and prescription drugs rocketed by up to 20 percent over the past month, a snap survey showed yesterday.
Figures obtained from three separate pharmacies in Harare, for example, showed that widely used comtrey anti-biotic which was selling for $13 as of August 1 was now selling for $18, representing a 33,3 percent increase.
Likewise, prices for common cough syrups such as 4Cs syrup (used to treat children with flu and cold), linctopent and benylin had increased significantly.
A 100ml bottle of 4Cs which cost $2.50 at August 1 now costs $3, 20; linctopent now costs $4, up from $3 while benylyn recorded the biggest jump, from $4 to $7 over the same period.
The price of Cardura Oral drug which is used in lowering high blood pressure in patients with susceptible to strokes, heart attacks, and kidney problems also rose significantly from $15 to $23 while the price of its alternative, Exforge increased from $19 in August to $24.
Pharmacists who spoke to the Daily News said the foreign currency situation has plunged them into a crisis, which could soon force them to turn decline medical aid payment facilities.
Efforts to get a comment from the Retail Pharmacists Association were fruitless as its chairperson, Portifa Mwendera, was unreachable.
Zimbabwe’s health delivery system is on its knees as the country’s economy continues to sink deeper into problems — preventing meaningful budgetary support from President Robert Mugabe’s broke government.
Last year, major referral hospitals had to suspend many services as a result of the shortage of drugs, including painkillers — exposing how much things have fallen apart in the country since the early 2000s.
United Bulawayo Hospitals and Harare Central Hospital were among the major health facilities that had to suspend normal services as a result of drug shortages, including pethidine — a synthetic compound used as a painkiller, especially for women in labour and during caesarean operations.
And Binga District Hospital, which is situated in one of Zimbabwe’s poorest regions, was last year also forced to scale back its services as a result of water and electricity shortages.
At the peak of its economy Zimbabwe imported drugs minimally due to the then healthy state of its pharmaceutical industry which was largely dominated by CAPS Holdings.
CAPS Holdings has been teetering on the brink of total collapse ever since it started experiencing financial problems more than five years ago.
CAPS Holdings’ Southerton plant at the flagship CAPS Private limited, is currently operating at five percent of installed capacity.
Government has since snapped up CAPS’ debts through the Zimbabwe Asset Management Corporation, an RBZ unit setup to assume distressed companies’ debts to banks.
At its peak, the struggling drug manufacturer accounted for 75 percent of the local healthcare products market and was involved in the manufacture, wholesale distribution, and retail of pharmaceutical, consumer, and veterinary products.
CAPS is only operating one out of its four plants in the capital, Harare, as a result of lack of funding from new shareholders, government, leaving the country’s health institutions and donors with no option but to procure medicines, including intravenous drip water, outside the country.
It ceased manufacturing drugs and failed to have its 15-year lease of Harare’s upmarket St Anne’s Hospital renewed in 2013, while its QV pharmacy chain has only recently returned to good health under judicial management.
CAPS Holdings had CAPS Private Limited, QV Pharmacies, Farm Centre, McDonald Scientific, Glassblowing Industries and Geddes Limited under its wings as it dominated the local and regional markets.
It had also branches in Botswana, South Africa, Zambia and Malawi. – Daily News