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Amid serious shortage of drugs, Health Ministry fails to clear WHO donation

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A World Health Organisation (WHO) donation of meningococcal vaccine that arrived in Sri Lanka early last month is still stuck with Customs after the relevant Health Ministry authorities failed to get it cleared on time, authoritative sources said.

The Sunday Times reported last week that hundreds of Sri Lankan Muslims departing for Hajj this year were being administered the mandatory meningococcal vaccine through unregulated means, with doctors suspecting the injection is being imported in regular passenger baggage with no guarantee of cold chain management. This is because the injection is not available at the Medical Research Institute or with registered pharmaceutical companies. The meningococcal vaccine is a compulsory requirement imposed by the Saudi authorities on pilgrims performing Hajj in Mecca as the risk of transmission is high in large crowds. Meningitis is rare in Sri Lanka. Meningococcal vaccines must be refrigerated between 2°C and 8°C (36°F and 46°F). In the transport of injections, the cold chain is typically checked at the point of manufacture, transport, storage and administration.

The Sunday Times has since learned that the Health Ministry had requested 1,000 vials from the WHO and received 200. However, even this limited quantity has not been taken out of the Colombo Port by the Medical Supplies Division, Sri Lanka Ports Authority and Customs sources confirmed.

It was only after our report was published that the Health Ministry this week sent samples and the related documents to the MRI’s vaccine division for testing and clearance. MRI Director Dedunu Dias confirmed that their report was completed and sent to the Ministry of Health on Friday.

The meningococcal vaccine is not the only donation that has been stuck in the Port for weeks. In the past, the MSD delayed approving the release of consignments of free medical supplies that arrived in view of the economic crisis, with some being rendered useless owing to their short expiry dates, authoritative sources said.

However, the Health Ministry routinely warns of a medicines shortage crisis and issues waivers of registration to facilitate expedited drug purchases from Indian companies bypassing regulatory oversight.

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