A pharmacy in Aswan, Egypt. Drug suppliers, manufacturers want to increase prices of medicines to avoid losses in view of the post-flotation currency difference. Image Credit: Supplied

Cairo: Safwat Okasha, a civil servant, spent the afternoon hours of his weekend looking for one thing: a heart drug for his five-year-old son.

“I moved from one pharmacy to the other asking for this medicine. But all of them told me that it has been out of stock since the government floated the pound,” Okasha said. “After a long search, I found the imported alternative of the medicine in a pharmacy in central Cairo — it cost 200 pounds (Dh45.20),” he said. Very expensive given his monthly salary of 3,000 pounds.

Egypt’s patients and the medical community have been complaining about shortage of several vital drugs since the country allowed the Egyptian pound to float earlier this month in order to eliminate a thriving currency black market.

The pre-flotation dollar rate was officially fixed at 8.8 Egyptian pounds. Since the flotation took effect on November 3, its exchange rate has hovered around 18, prompting drug suppliers and local manufacturers to demand that the government allow them to increase prices of their goods to avoid losses.

The government, which fixes prices of drugs in Egypt, has rejected the demand.

Patients’ families say the dispute has resulted in shortage of many drugs in the local market.

“A month ago, my mother suffered a fracture in the hip joint,” said Tamer Metwali. “The case required surgical intervention, but I learnt from several hospitals that artificial joints are not available now because of the dollar crisis. My mother and other patients like her have no other choice but to depend on painkillers until the problem is solved.”

In recent months, Egypt has been relying heavily on imports, including drugs, to cover the needs of its 91 million population.

The country’s foreign currency reserves have dwindled from their peak $36 billion in 2010 to $19 billion (Dh70 billion) in October this year.

The decline is blamed on the unrest that has gripped Egypt following the 2011 uprising, scaring away investors and foreign tourists.

“It is impossible for pharmaceutical companies to continue importing medicines while their prices remain unchanged after the pound flotation,” George Atta Allah, a member of the independent Pharmacists’ Association said.

“The only way out of the current crisis is to move up prices of medicines, especially as there are no local alternatives to some imported drugs such as blood derivatives and pregnancy-related injections.”

Atta Allah warned that the situation brooks no delay.

“If things remain as they are, the shortage of medicines will worsen, and will open the door to smuggling. This can result in bogus medicines being smuggled in, thus posing danger to citizens.”

Egypt’s Medical Association also lent its voice to the warning, urging the government to resolve the crisis and swiftly allocate enough money to import drugs in order to ease shortages.

They include drugs for treating tumours, heart disorders and diabetes.

The Medical Association also said that several haemodialysis centres in the country face the prospect of closure due to low supplies of required solutions and filters.

However, Minister of Health Dr Ahmad Emad rejected as “unacceptable” what he called “pressure” by drug suppliers on the government to jack up prices.

“Until recently, the pharmaceutical companies used to buy the dollar at the black market, paying 18 pounds for one dollar,” Emad said. “Now after the flotation, the price of the pound against the dollar has dropped, thus the manufacturers are making profits. The government cannot accept the idea of liberalising the prices of medicines because this will place a burden on patients.”

Osama Rostum, deputy head of Egypt’s Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry, sees things differently.

He said that drug suppliers and local manufacturers used to cover their pre-flotation dollar needs at the official rate of 8.8 pounds per dollar. The exchange rate of the local pound against the dollar has nearly doubled since the flotation.

“Prices of imported medicines have increased accordingly,” Rostum told a local television station.

He estimated the value of Egypt’s drug market at 45 billion pounds (Dh10.3 billion).

A crisis meeting between the minister of health and representatives of drug suppliers last week ended inconclusively.

In an attempt to ease the problem, President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi ordered a state-owned pharmaceutical company to import drugs worth $186 million. The list includes 146 types of drugs for treating chronic diseases.

Egypt’s leading Islamist religious body, Dar Al Ifta, has come down on the “exaggerated” cost of drugs and medical treatment.

“We appeal to all those responsible for treatment and medicines in Egypt to be merciful as much as possible to patients,” the institution said in a fatwa (a religious edict). “They have to ensure that patients will assured of treatment at a fair price.”