Newly-appointed Minister of Health Dr Peter Kumpalume, explains in this interview with BONIFACE PHIRI, how he will curb the problem of drugs shortages.
Have you already met the Parliamentary Committee on Health and Population to map the way forward on the drugs situation?
I met them last week on Monday where we mainly discussed the drug situation in the country. I was told that it was the first time for a minister of health to appear before the committee. I intend this to be my style and approach and it is my hope this will bear fruits as it ensures that we forge ahead together for a common cause. For me, the committee and a minister [of health] have the same goal; we all want the best for the patient. I was pleased with their ideas and input and have learnt a lot, especially in terms of how to handle drug issues. The media has reported heavily on rampant pilferage of drugs, which occurs when drugs leave the Central Medical Stores Trust (CMST) but don’t get to the patient. The majority of the losses occur when the medicines reach the end point—health centres and clinics.
What strategies have you put in place then to check the malpractice?
A number of strategies have been put in place and they include strengthening of monitoring and distribution systems to ensure that there is proper record keeping in order to properly track where the medicines go. We have also put checks at CMST whereby three invoices will be released when the drugs are going to the health centres; one copy will remain with CMST, another to district commissioner’s office while the third will be given to the district health office (DHO). What is needed most, however, is a change of mindset in people who are helping government in the distribution of drugs. They need to understand that they have a duty to save lives and they can only do so by making sure that the medicines reach the patients. If that medicine is sold or goes elsewhere, we are denying patients their lives and our conscience and humanity should rebuke us.
What is government doing to review the Pharmacy and Poisons Act in order to deal with the problems?
This is indeed another challenge because the Act imposes lenient penalties to offenders. It’s a shame that the Act has a K50 000 ($89) fine for a drug thief. This basically means no one can be deterred from committing these crimes. The committee and the ministry both agree that the law needs to be reviewed so that stiffer penalties are put in place.
How soon should Malawians expect this review?
The ministry would like this to be done by November when Parliament meets so that drug thieves start receiving stiffer punishments. However, there may be delays because the law needs to go to the Ministry of Justice and then the Cabinet before the final draft is sent to Parliament for debate.
Would you agree with suggestions that the country focuses more on curative than preventive measures?
It’s true and that is a fair observation because at the end of the day between a sick and a healthy person we ensure that the patient becomes better so that they continue to contribute to the development of the nation. That has been our focus all along, but I guess it’s due to limited resources. It’s not as if we haven’t invested in preventive measures; it is not just enough. Going forward, we want to emphasise on preventive measures because it’s far much cheaper that way. This is an area the ministry wants to invest in more because we know it would reduce congestion as well as the need for drugs.
We have heard that patients in some hospitals are receiving one meal a day. What are you doing to address this situation?
I have heard about this and it is a scar on the ministry. You must know that it is recommended that patients must take medicines after food and if you are required to take the medicine twice a day but you are having one meal then it’s a disaster because the medicine won’t work properly. We really need to ensure that the little ORT [other recurrent transactions] budget is spent or prioritised on patients. Hospitals, the ministry and the committee exist because of the patient, so the little we have in form of food and medicine must go towards the patient.