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Lebanese cancer patients face frantic search for drug


QLEIAT, Lebanon – Saeedi Mubarak and her mother share a bond that goes beyond a close mother-daughter relationship: They were both diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago and underwent months of chemotherapy in a hospital in Beirut, Along with anxiety, hair loss suffered and uncertainty for the future.

They now share the fear of not getting the medicine they need to complete their treatment because in Lebanon, where a devastating economic crisis has hit daily life, there is almost no medicine.

The small Mediterranean country – once a medical center in the Middle East – is grappling with acute shortages of medical supplies, fuel and other necessities. The economic crisis, described as one of the world’s worst over the past 150 years, is rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement by a political class that has accumulated debt and done little to encourage local industries, thereby The country has been almost forced to depend on imports. Every thing

But those imports are hard to come by as the Lebanese pound has lost more than 90% of its value since 2019, and the Central Bank’s foreign reserves are drying up. The crisis was compounded by a massive explosion that devastated the country’s main port last year.

For months, pharmacy shelves have been bare, panic buying and suppliers holding back drugs, hoping to sell them later at higher prices amid uncertainty. Hospitals are at a breaking point, with generators and life-saving machines barely able to secure diesel to operate day-to-day.

Drug shortages threaten thousands of people, including cancer patients. In desperation, many took to social media or turned to travelers arriving from abroad. These days visitors and Lebanese expatriates often arrive with suitcases filled with pills, vials and other medical supplies for relatives and friends.

Mubarak, a 36-year-old high school teacher and mother of two boys, says the feeling of not being safe never leaves her. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in July last year, a few weeks before her mother, Helen Akiki, discovered a lump in her breast.

After months of chemo, Mubarak had a mastectomy in December. She’s now undergoing a therapy that’s supposed to take 10 years, which includes a daily pill and a monthly hormone injection, to make sure the cancer doesn’t come back.

As the deficiency progressed and Mubarak was no longer receiving hormones, the family posted his story on Instagram along with Mubarak’s cell phone number.

For the next day and a half, the phone did not stop ringing – Lebanese from all over the world offered to send him medicine. Six days after the injection, a traveler from neighboring Jordan gave her the medicine.

“It was very emotional,” said Mubarak, sitting in the garden of her single-story home in Kleet, a mountain town north of Beirut, as her sons ran while feeding chickens and rabbits. She said the passenger refused to accept the payment.

Medicines are not the last hurdle for Mubarak and his mother. Due to Lebanon’s fuel crisis, they worry about whether they will get enough gasoline each time they drive to Beirut for treatment. Recently, Akiki was told that the hospital could not find the drug used in the serum to treat him. He replaced it with an injection which he said was more painful.

Akiki says the two have found strength in coping with the fight together, though she grapples with feelings of guilt that she herself became ill when her daughter needed her the most.

“This is not the time for me to be sick,” Akiki said. “I tell myself what’s important. A mother stops thinking about herself in this very moment.”

Issam Shehadeh, head of the cancer department at the Rafik Hariri University Hospital in Beirut, said the situation had worsened over the past three months. The health ministry’s stockpile of critical drugs is now empty, and many hospitals are unable to secure supplies from importers who are stuck.

“We got to a point when we told patients that ‘we’ve run out of ways to treat you,'” Shehadeh said. Doctors are often left with no recourse, but patients are advised to try to get medicine from abroad, a difficult task for anyone, especially the poor, whose ranks are rising in economic distress. More than half of Lebanon’s 6 million people now live in poverty.

One of Schaideh’s patients, Wahiba Daughan, who has lung cancer, reached out to relatives in France, who sent enough medicine for two seasons of chemotherapy. Relatives refuse to be reimbursed, but Daughan worries about paying for future medication: a government-subsidized dose costs $40 for a single session in Lebanon – a 10th the price in France.

Daughan, 60, said civil servant, “I keep worrying. I’ve got my dose now but I probably won’t until later.”

In late August, dozens of cancer patients gathered outside the United Nations’ main offices in Beirut to demand international help. “We refuse to do a life countdown,” read one banner. Another said: “Our government is killing us.”

Najat Rochdi, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon, shed tears as he heard patients talk about their condition. She said her office is in touch with potential donors, including the World Bank, to find a solution.

A new government has promised to contain the economic slowdown.

But with the absence of a Lebanese state, calls on social media have mobilized the country’s large diaspora, as was the case with Mubarak.

Mubarak says that he does not know how to compensate those who sent him three months of medicine.

“I mention him in my prayers every day,” said Mubarak, a devout Christian. “God willing, people will continue to help each other.”

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