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Donated Cancer Medicines Help Save Lives in Lebanon

With medications hard to come by, biologic therapies provided on a charitable basis stand in the gap for patients.



Donated medicines are stocked at the hematology and medical oncology department pharmacy at the American University of Beirut Medical Center. (Photo courtesy of Anera)

Editor’s note: This story was initially published by Anera on June 1, 2022.

“Medical shortages are all too common during Lebanon’s economic crisis,” explained Hazem Assi, a Hematology and Medical Oncology department physician at the American University of Beirut Medical Center, or AUBMC.

“Despite the efforts of the health ministry, medications cannot be purchased in the needed quantities because of soaring prices.”

In practical terms, he said cancer patients might have to skip treatment for one or two months due to the unavailability of the medicine.

“This has severe effects on the patient’s health,” he said, “and can be life-threatening because cancer treatment depends on consistency, sometimes for long periods.”

Lebanon’s economic collapse has had a far-reaching impact on the country’s health sector. Cancer treatment is no exception. Eighty percent of Lebanon’s medicines and supplies are imported, but suppliers no longer have enough foreign currency to buy what they need. Pharmacies, hospitals and clinics have reported a shortage of cancer medications. Some patients are getting only intermittent treatments. Others have no access to treatment at all.
“Cancer treatment is very delicate and alternative treatments are not easy to find,” explained AUBMC chief nurse Wafaa Skaff. “The patient’s biggest battle against cancer is time. That is why it is crucial to secure medicines and maintain a consistent timeline for treatment.”

Anera has distributed a substantial supply of anti-cancer and insulin medications from Direct Relief, including a new biological therapy donated to Direct Relief by Bristol Myers Squibb for cancers like melanoma and leukemia.

Assi said it is painful to watch his patients suffer needlessly. “There were two cancer cases I oversaw where the patients were unable to purchase certain medications and had to discontinue treatment. Their health deteriorated rapidly and led to their death, something that was painful for the families, but also for the staff involved in their care.”

He said the donated medicines will help save or extend the lives of cancer patients and reduce the fear of living with uncertain, irregular treatment.

“Chemo costs me $400 USD on the black market, but with the depreciation of the currency and my reduced income, it is beyond my reach,” said 70-year-old Mousa, who is benefitting from the donated medicines. The cancer patient has tried to stay positive, but he knew his survival depended on the availability of cancer medication, which the government had been unable to secure.

Chemotherapy treatment is meant to be administered on a regular schedule but has often been disrupted as the economic crisis deepens.

Assi said the shortage of medications extends beyond the more expensive pharmaceuticals. “It is also hard to find affordable medications dubbed essential by the WHO which are needed for treatment.”

Mousa knows that from personal experience. “Medication for my immunity has been hard to find and, despite my insurance, the government is unable to supply my anti-cancer medicines. I’ve had to postpone treatment sessions due to unavailability. Isn’t it enough that the crisis has taken away our security, basic needs, livelihoods, and public services, and now it’s affecting our health, too?”

“I’ve had to postpone treatment sessions due to unavailability.”

The crisis also has affected the staff caring for cancer patients. Skaff explained that “The multiple crises we experienced in the past couple of years have been overwhelming for the staff and patients on personal and professional levels. This adds to the pressure and stress of dealing with both their personal concerns and their patients.”

The Lebanese Ministry of Health had provided cancer medication at affordable rates, but now the medicines are not even available. Assi said donations from Anera are key to continuing health services since the government is unable to adequately provide what is needed.

“AUBMC was among the leading cancer treatment centers and now we depend on donations to continue our services. We couldn’t do this without Anera’s help.”

Giving is Good Medicine

You don't have to donate. That's why it's so extraordinary if you do.