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Looted medicines hampering health care

[Iraq] Woman sells stolen medicines in Basrah market.
Medicines are for sale everywhere in Basra - mostly looted from government hospitals (IRIN)

Amidst the proliferation of vegetable stalls in Basra's old market, is the market's "medicine section", where table after table is stacked with a vast array of bottles and boxes of pills.

The vendors, mostly women, say they bought the drugs from hospitals, clinics, or charitable organisations. "I've been in this business for 12 years," said Fatumah. "I've got good experience - I know all about them. I've got drugs for blood pressure, the heart, bones, diarrhoea, headaches, chest infections and testicle complaints. Ask me, what do you need?" she says, rummaging in a bag.

Holding up a box of antibiotics for a closer look, another vendor says, "Expired? We sell them anyway, it makes no difference." The fact that the medicines spend all day, every day, in direct sunlight apparently makes no difference either.

Before the war, small amounts of cheap medicines pilfered from hospitals stocks and clinics were always available from street vendors. But now pharmacists say that large quantities of medicines looted from the city's main warehouse supplying the private sector, which was burned to the ground, are flooding
the market.

Nidal Isa, who runs the Al-Ra'id Pharmacy, says he has run out of his most basic stock. "In the market, they are selling fertility drugs, ventolin for children, eye drops, prostate drugs, stuff for blood pressure, heart problems, painkillers and [drugs for] diarrhoeal problems," said Nidal. "And I have none of these in my shop. They sell for up to five times less than in a pharmacy or hospital, because they got them for free in the
first place. The price doesn't matter, they still make a profit."

Maryam Hamid, a pharmacist working at Basra's Education Hospital (formerly Saddam Husayn Hospital)said that her stores of antibiotics would not last longer than two weeks. "We have no idea about the next supplies, but with the mercy of God we will get some more."

As things are now, Maryam and her colleagues are unable to treat a whole host of complaints, including epilepsy, leishmaniasis, angina, diabetes, cardiovascular complaints, asthma and septicaemia.

Medical supplies are beginning to reach Iraq from numerous NGOs and donors, but medical staff who are used to a highly centralised system are understandably nervous about using them. "They want to test everything, because they are used to such high quality control. We are trying to give them the confidence to use them, where we know the manufacturer and the
product," Christine Chomilier, a technical officer with the World Health Organisation, told IRIN.

Isa added that countless antibiotics, cough medicines and pills which should be prescribed by medical doctors were being sold by people with no education. "They know from the colours and the boxes what's what, but most, especially the women, can't even read," he said.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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