FORMER Health Minister Dr Brian Chituwo says he is of the view that things like Panadol should not be provided by government on an outpatient basis, arguing that citizens must be able to take care of “some of these things”.

In an interview, Dr Chituwo said the shortage of drugs in public hospitals had been going on for a long time, and that there was just a new found freedom which had allowed people to speak out.

“The issue of drug shortages in hospitals has been going on for a very long time even when my young brother Chitalu Chilufya was Minister of Health. You will recall, the health workers were forbidden from prescribing drugs. If you give a prescription to a patient to go and buy, that is an indication that medicines are not available in the clinics or hospital. Nobody was allowed to give a prescription. I do not remember you bringing it to the fore and informing the nation that there is something wrong going on here. So you have this hidden, it is like a boil, that whether you hide it, sooner or later it has to be attended to by a health worker or to burst on its own. So I am giving that example in relation to what is happening now,” he said.

“We have had chronic shortages of medicines but for some reasons, people were not able to talk about it as they are now. New found freedom and they are right to talk about it as it should have been in the past. So this is why to me, it appears as if this shortage of drugs only happened in six months, no. Shortages have been there all the time. Just as this boil, once it has been taken care of, it takes time to heal. My view is that even these shortages will take time to heal and be corrected. This is in the sense that you have to now restart the systems in procurement. The pharmacists must be clear to tell us the needed time from placing orders and having these drugs available. There is all that logistical chain that needs to be smoothly working.”

Dr Chituwo said people needed to understand the time taken to purchase large quantities of drugs before labeling the Ministry as being incompetent.

“This is information which can clearly be addressed by the Ministry so that the people are aware. If the time they had promised the drugs to be in the palms is not here, then there has to be an explanation. At the moment, it is just guesswork. We do not know what drugs they are talking about. Some are saying simple drugs like paracetamol or panadol. For me, I have a personal view that things like panadol should not be provided by government on an outpatient basis. We as citizens must be able to take care of some of these things. I suppose that now [it] is being taken care of by NHIMA. So they have a point. So before we label the Ministry as being incompetent, let us try to understand the time of purchase of large quantities of drugs,” he said.

“If it is local purchases, and as far as I am aware, there was always a percentage in grants given to hospitals to buy additional emergency drugs. The bulk of the drugs were supplied by ZAMMSA, which was medical stores. So with the disruption of medical stores, it meant that health facilities were relying entirely on 30 or 50 percent of their grant to buy medicines and medical supplies from the commercial window. So that amount of money could not go far as it would if they were buying from a wholesaler. So the patients do not reduce. Clearly, whatever little medical supplies or drugs are there, they are quickly mopped up and there was nothing for a week or two.”

Dr Chituwo said the Ministry of Health needed to fix the issue of unavailability of drugs and not just end at disbursing funds.

“The Ministry of Health should just fix it. Let them just tell us the plans. They have told us they have been given money. Let us go a bit further, are these hospitals buying those medicines? We need to see that. Government has allocated funds and actually money is available in hospitals, why are they having challenges in having drugs? The mere fact that one has been given money should not be the end of the story. There should be somebody to check if the medicines have been bought. Have the patients actually benefited from these medicines?” said Dr Chituwo.

“I have been out of the system so I may not have all the information. However, the Cancer Diseases Hospital was visited by then Health Minister Dr Jonas Chanda, the medical superintendent reported that for three years, the Ministry had not bought drugs such that they had accumulated huge debt for cancer drugs. So that is just the tip of the iceberg. What happened to the system? What I know is Cancer Diseases Hospital used to put in orders for medicine and the committee would sit to evaluate and buy from a renowned source. But for three years that was not done. So if that was the case at the Cancer Diseases Hospital, what was happening in other health institutions?”