Picture: 123RF/KENG PO LEUNG
Picture: 123RF/KENG PO LEUNG

SA has been hit by a shortage of mental health medication and contraceptives as the coronavirus outbreak and the associated lockdown has disrupted manufacturing and imports.

The number of stockouts, when a medicine is unavailable, has doubled this year to more than 1,400 reports, according to Ruth Dube, project co-ordinator at the Stop Stockouts Project, a non-profit that campaigns to end medicine scarcity.

Medicines that have run short include lithium, used to treat bipolar disorder, as well as the injectable contraceptives Depo-Provera and Nur-Isterate, made by Aspen Pharmacare and Bayer. respectively, according to Dube.

Regarding lithium, “There is an inadequate stock for the country, possibly less than half of what we need for the numbers of patients we’re treating currently”, said Lesley Robertson, a psychiatrist and head of the clinical unit at Sedibeng District Health Services.

SA, which has the highest number of confirmed coronavirus infections in Africa, still has some restrictions in place to curb the spread of Covid-19, and the closure of factories and ports has affected a range of goods.

Aspen, however, which supplies lithium under the name Camcolit, said there is no shortage.

The Gauteng health department said the scarcity is due to a shortage of ingredients needed to make the medicines. Demand also rose during the lockdown, while local manufacturers had their operations interrupted, the department said in an October statement.

A third of 242 public health facilities surveyed in May had shortages of injectable contraceptives, according to Dube.

“Sexual reproductive health is essential and a right to all women; any violation can lead to a life-threatening position for the women and serious consequences to the communities,” Dube said. “These stockouts contribute to teenage pregnancy statistics” and lead to girls dropping out of school, she said.

The mental health medication shortage has been exacerbated by an announcement by Pfizer in September that the manufacture of intramuscular haloperidol, used to treat mood disorders, has been discontinued in SA. Pfizer stopped producing the anti-psychotic medication for “reasons beyond its control”, Vuyo Mjekula, the company’s communications chief in SA, said.

“The shortages and stockouts of medicines often lead to interruptions of treatment in which some patients end up disengaging from care, risking loss of lives,” Dube said. Appropriate generic alternatives cannot always be found.

Bayer could not be reached for comment.


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