Greeks’ Headaches Worsen As Debt Crisis Trigger Aspirin Shortage

By: EW News Desk Team   Date: 10 January 2012

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10 January 2012

 Greece’s spiralling debt crisis and subsequent austerity measures have led to a drug shortage among pharmacies and clinics in the country, where even common drugs, such as aspirin, have been increasingly harder to find.

According to a report by Bloomberg BusinessWeek, almost half of the nation’s 500-most commonly used medicines are now in deep shortage, with pharmacies now being forced to foot the bill up front for any available drugs even before they can receive payment from their patients.

“Wholesalers simply do not have the money anymore to play bank to the pharmacies,” said Heinz Kobelt, secretary general of the European Association of Euro-Pharmaceutical Companies, in a telephone interview with BusinessWeek.

The situation is so dire that pharmacists now spend spends hours each day pleading with drug makers, wholesalers and colleagues to hunt down medicines for their clients. According to Mina Mavrou, who runs a pharmacy in a middle-class Athens suburb, Life-saving drugs such as Clexane or Flixotide are no longer in stock from their suppliers, with Mavrou’s computerised inventory often showing a red mark against its drug stock.

“When we see red, we want to cry,” Mavrou said. “The situation is worsening day by day.”

Last October, Martin McKee, a professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, warned in an article for The Lancet that the ripple-down effects from Greece’s debt crisis could soon turn into a “Greek tragedy” for its public health system.

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“Overall, the picture of health in Greece is concerning. It reminds us that, in an effort to finance debts, ordinary people are paying the ultimate price: losing access to care and preventive services, facing higher risks of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, and in the worst cases losing their lives,” wrote McKee.

“Greater attention to health and health-care access is needed to ensure that the Greek crisis does not undermine the ultimate source of the country's wealth—its people,” he added.

But Greece’s Ministry of Health saw things differently back then. In a direct response to McKee’s article that was posted on its website, the Ministry of Health’s secretary general, Nicolaos Polyzos, admitted that while, “it would be unrealistic to deny that there are many difficulties regarding all public services due to the financial crisis… this cannot justify characterizing the current picture of the health sector in Greece as a ‘tragedy’.”

Still, pharmacists and patients are feeling the worst effect from a crippling debt crisis that could undermine citizens’ financial and physical health.

“The whole system is dysfunctional,” said Aggeliki Matsouki, a pharmacist who opened her first pharmacy in Athens in 1981. Greece’s latest austerity measures, for instance, have put pressure on drug wholesalers and pharmacies, with efforts to trim the health bill in 2010 totalling by more than 13 billion euros.

Ironically, government-mandated reductions in drug prices have also caused a drug shortage in the country, as pharmaceutical companies would rather sell their products in their countries rather than Greece.

According to Heinz Kobelt, made-in-Greece drugs are being shipped out of the country to pharmacies in Eastern Europe, where medicines tend to draw a higher price.

“Even Polish people pay more than Greeks for Aspirin,” he said. “That is the recipe for parallel trade, I’m sorry to say.”

Ioannis Theodorakis, chairman of the Association of Persons with Multiple Sclerosis, now claim that even gravely-ill patients are now discontinuing their treatments, simply because they are unable to pay upfront for available drugs, or are unable to locate them.

“It’s a difficult decision to make because you can’t play dice with your health,” said Theodorakis, who stopped taking Merck KGaA’s Rebif in 2006 because he was uncertain whether the drug’s benefits outweighed its side effects and has been frustrated in his search for alternative medication.

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