Medicine shortages and expensive treatment: A new crisis for Lebanese cancer patients

Relatives of cancer patients stage a demonstration demanding pharmaceutical supplies outside the building of United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) in Beirut, Lebanon
5 min read
07 June, 2022
As Lebanon's local currency becomes more unstable, cancer patients struggle to cover the costs of treatments and find it near impossible to locate their medicines inside local pharmacies.

Maha, 22, is a passionate dreamer, an avid learner, and a marketing enthusiast. However, in August 2020, she learned that her life would be turned into one of grappling with a deadly disease and an economic crisis compounding her illness.

"When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, the dollar rate was 7,000 Lebanese Lira to $1, now it's nearing 28,000 Lebanese Lira to $1," she told The New Arab. "On top of that, my medicines are no longer subsidised and the main one I use for treatment has disappeared completely."

As a result, Maha said she made peace with death and even finalised her will as she impatiently awaits news on the availability of her medicine.

"There is no further humiliation than this. Imagine fighting two battles simultaneously; one on the streets, one inside the hospitals"

Whilst everyone was preoccupied with the parliamentary elections on May 15, the government sneakily removed subsidies on certain cancer medications just 48 hours prior.

This exacerbated the worsening condition of patients, struggling to locate prescription drugs inside local pharmacies since April.

For this reason, humanitarian experts are warning against, what they deem a "genocide" against cancer patients enacted by the government if the situation remains unimproved.

Relatives of cancer patients stage a demonstration demanding pharmaceutical supplies outside the building of United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) in Beirut, Lebanon
Relatives of cancer patients stage a demonstration demanding pharmaceutical supplies outside the building of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) in Beirut, Lebanon [Getty Images]

"The Central Bank no longer wishes to use its dollar reserves on imports for cancer medication. Instead, it handed over the responsibility to the government, which only recently decided to issue funds for cancer patients," Hani Nassar, Founder and President of Barbara Nassar Association for Cancer Patient Support told The New Arab.

According to Nassar, the funds agreed upon are worth $35 million and will be split between procuring medical equipment and importing medicines. However, this is a temporary band-aid that expires in four months.

Furthermore, the government was only responsive after Nassar's NGO organised a protest on May 22, accompanied by patients and the head of the order of pharmacists, Dr Joe Salloum.

"There is no further humiliation than this. Imagine fighting two battles simultaneously; one on the streets, one inside the hospitals,"  Nassar said.

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Furthermore, government aid needs time to reap visible results. Therefore, patients are left to fend for themselves, with chemotherapy costs reaching up to $2,000 per session and hospitals demanding cash dollar payments upon entry.

Maha, who once sought financial support from Nassar's NGO, said the association has become overwhelmed with the soaring number of patients and skyrocketing medical costs. Therefore, she was forced to pursue treatment on her own, with the help of family and friends.

The Master's student, who works as a translator and copy-editor, said her body rejected chemotherapy, prompting her to switch to cryotherapy that employs disposable needles. A month ago, however, the latter disappeared from pharmacies, forcing her to reach out to overseas connections as a final cry for help.

"I have a friend who sends me medicines from Turkey, however, the needles I need are unavailable there. I'm now trying to purchase them from other countries, such as the United States," Maha said.

However, Los Angeles resident Peggy Bedoyian, one of the founders of Califorleb – an Instagram page meant to help raise funds and send food boxes to the Lebanese in need – told The New Arab that cancer medicines are difficult to procure in the US, due to tight restrictions on prescription drugs.

Meanwhile, she said, requests for cancer medicines have soared over the last month.

"Our main source of medical purchases was Turkey.  However, since February, prices have drastically increased," Bedoiyan said. "A box that used to go for $6, is now being sold for $9 with delivery fees to Beirut."

"Counterfeit cancer medicines brought from Turkey have made their way into the Lebanese market. Although sold in small quantities by a few smugglers, experts warned that without a strategic plan to support imports, the black market will be out of control very soon"

For the majority of the population employed in the public sector and in Lebanon-based private companies, salaries are paid in the fluctuating and unstable Lebanese Lira.

So two additional dollars over a prolonged period of time can be crushing.

From his end, Nassar said that Turkey is now home to a "medicines' mafia", that is exploiting the currency crisis in Lebanon to make extra profit, reaching a staggering 75% per individual medicine.

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Furthermore, a recent report by a local media outlet exposed that counterfeit cancer medicines brought from Turkey have made their way into the Lebanese market. Although sold in small quantities by a few smugglers, experts warned that without a strategic plan to support imports, the black market will be out of control very soon.

To make matters worse, Nassar said that the number of diagnosed cancer patients has surged dramatically in the first half of 2022 alone as more people opted out of regular check-ups due to exorbitant costs.

Consequently, patients who could have been saved in the early stages of their diagnoses were left to suffer as the illness metastasized in their bodies.

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"More people are abandoning their treatment and their mortality rate is increasing rapidly; the government is sentencing these people to an early death," Nassar said.

In an attempt to keep the situation afloat, Nassar's NGO is cooperating with the Lebanese diaspora to secure additional medicine from abroad.

"These are medicines used to treat the side effects of cancer, and although they are still available in pharmacies, their prices have become unreasonable. This is why we're pleading for people to donate and help us fight for our basic right to exist," Nassar said.

Dana Hourany is a multimedia journalist based in Beirut.

Follow her on Twitter: @DanaHourany