A countrywide shortage of cancer, heart failure and other drugs is putting patients’ lives at risk. Cheaper medicines for leukaemia, diabetes, thyroid problems and thalassaemia have either disappeared from pharmacies or are in dangerously short supply because of pricing and regulation problems in the pharmaceutical industry. Campaigners believe that drug regulation, registration, pricing and non-enforcement of drug law have resulted in a crisis in Pakistan’s healthcare system. Patients with low incomes are left the most vulnerable. According to oncologists, drugs to treat blood, skin and kidney cancer are in short supply and they are some extremely important drugs that are not registered in Pakistan yet. Some new drugs are available in limited supply but they are out of reach of middle-income families.

This has given expensive drugs an open market, where they are replacing the cheaper ones gradually in the market and putting treatment beyond the reach of the poor patients. It is said that two months course of L Asparginase leukaemia injections used to cost Rs 60,000, but now as the cheaper version has almost disappeared, patients are forced to buy the new L Asparginase (paegelatede) which costs Rs 370,000. With over 500 to 1,000 patients diagnosed with cancer every year in Pakistan, how many patients can actually afford to pay? With such callous spike in prices, the pharmaceutical industry is no less than a money-grabbing machine.

The government is to be blamed as well. Many have stopped making the medicines because a price cap introduced by the government has made their production unprofitable. The Chairman of Pakistan Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (PPMA), remains adamant that it is better to raise some prices of local medicines to ensure continuing availability instead of “allowing imported and smuggled medicines to flood the market that further financially burden already suffering patients.” Perhaps, he did not fathom the burden patients would have to carry to even buy basic drugs.

Manufacturers are deliberately keeping supply short to inflate prices. The regulator should register new and less expensive drugs to discourage the black market and then force the companies to ensure their availability as per drug act of 1976. These shortages mean patients either wait or face exploitation at the hands of unscrupulous suppliers who import cheap drugs from India and then offer them at exorbitant prices to the desperately ill. A more reasonable drug price should be reached between pharmaceutical companies and hospitals, and more coordination work should be conducted among the government, drug producers and hospitals.