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Zimbabwe's Economic Crisis Drives Medicine to the Black Market

By Columbus Mavhunga

HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Authorities in Zimbabwe say the country's economic crisis has resulted in an acute shortage of essential medical drugs. Officials say the shortage has pushed some people to turn to the black market for medicines, some of which are not certified by the drug control authority.

For nearly 10 years now, Lena Lukwani has been taking five different types of medication to ease her diabetes and hypertension.

The 77-year-old Lukwani said she used to pay about $50 for her medication, but says the situation has become dire in the past few months, with prices doubling. She says some drugs are in short supply.

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"These days it is difficult," Lukwani said. "Out of the five I only got two; it has been like that for two months. So I have been limiting my diet — especially starch. I am blessed because of the children I have, but that is not the same for my colleagues who are also diabetic and are hypertensive."

Her seven children living around the globe managed to send her medication that was not readily available for three months. Otherwise, Lukwani said, she would have continued on her controlled diet or turned to the black market for help.

Shingai Gwatidzo is the spokesperson of the Medicines Control Authority of Zimbabwe.

"A lot of people try and take advantage of the current situation," Gwatidzo said. "You have a lot of unregulated markets that are coming up; those medicines are being smuggled into the country, we have not tested to see if they are safe. So one will be taking a risk in buying medicines on the streets."

Portifa Mwendera, president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Zimbabwe, acknowledges the health sector is failing to import enough antibiotics as well as drugs for ailments such as cancer, diabetes and hypertension.

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"The drug situation is pretty dire currently," Mwendera said. "Our main worry is that if the prevailing situation continues, we get more complications in our patients. And we might actually lose some patients. What is propped up — which is more worrying — is the parallel market for medicines. We are seeing a lot of people advertising that they can sell and send medication into Zimbabwe."

On a number of occasions, police and vendors with medicines have engaged in street battles in Harare, only to see the vendors back on the streets the next day.

The vendors argue that they have no other source of income and if the market has demand, they will remain in business by importing the drugs from neighboring countries.