National Drug Policy implementation by year’s end?

By Malik Gunatilleke

Following the drug shortage which reached its height early this month, the Government says that Sri Lanka's first ever National Drug Policy is finally due for completion while it could be implemented before the end of the year.

A National Drug Policy for Sri Lanka has been in the pipeline for many years as the Government on numerous occasions stated that the policy was almost finalised. With the appointment of Minister Maithripala Sirisena as the new Health Minister the policy has once again come to the limelight with authorities assuring that it is in its final stages of drafting.

Prof. S.D. Jayaratne, newly appointed Chairman of the State Pharmaceuticals Corporation (SPC) which was amalgamated with the State Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Corporation (SPMC), told the Sunday Times that the National Drug Policy is in the process of being drafted and hopes that the policy could be approved and implemented before the end of the year.

It needs to be approved by the Minister and then passed. The National Drug Policy is expected to provide guidelines on importation, manufacturing, registration, distribution and advertising drugs in Sri Lanka and Prof. Jayaratne hopes that the policy will ensure that future drug shortages can be prevented.Health authorities were under pressure to import adequate stocks of drugs at short notice after stocks of vital drugs including saline were in short supply in many hospitals around the country.

Following the shortage the Health Ministry decided to amalgamate the SPC and SPMC to improve efficiency within the single corporation as well as expand its production capacity.

Prof. Jayaratne said that the SPMC was initially the production arm of the SPC before being separated in 1997 with the aim of producing drugs consumed in large quantities in Sri Lanka.

"The SPMC had its own mission to produce and market its drugs and now it produces around 60 types of drugs. Most are given to the SPC but others are marketed independently," he said.

However, the two corporations were amalgamated due to managerial problems that led to lapses in communication and inefficiencies within the corporations. Prof. Jayaratne said that the amalgamation allowed for better and easier management as one organization while he believes that there will be more transparency within the SPC.

The Medical Supplies Division (MSD) was also to blame for the drug shortage as miscommunication with the SPC was said to have greatly delayed some imports of essential drugs to the country. As the MSD requests the necessary drugs and the SPC handles the procurement there needed to be flawless and timely communication which Prof. Jayaratne believes was lacking in the past.

"We will have meetings with the MSD staff every week from now to ensure lapses never occur again. The President too has assured us that all the necessary funds will be available to get the drugs we need," he said.

Furthermore, a team has been sent by the Ministry to India to facilitate the procurement of 70 types of drugs which are due to enter the market this week. The SPC believe that the drugs that enter the market in the next few days will end the shortage.

The SPC hopes to increase the quantity and variety of drugs produced locally to meet some of the demands within the country. Initial plans to produce saline in the country may have taken an early hit however due to the cost of production.Prof. Jayaratne stated that to break even with the cost of production of saline in the country the SPC would have to produce more than the national requirement."We are looking into partnering with a foreign corporation to supply Sri Lanka's requirement of saline at a low rate while the rest of the production can be exported to other countries," he said.

In the meantime, the SPC will also implement immediate plans to expand its network in the North and East with a branch to be set up in Jaffna. There are also plans to establish Osusala branches in every Laksathosa outlet in the country.

Meanwhile All Ceylon Health Workers Union president Saman Ratnapriya said that health sector trade unions had been pressuring the Government to implement the drug policy for over ten years but to no avail.

The previous Health Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva had approved a draft of the drug policy which went to the Parliamentary select committee but was never implemented. This inaction was followed by several parties taking legal action against the authorities who had failed to deliver on the promise of implementing the policy.

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