WHO: Libya Facing Medical Supply Crisis

BY Talea Miller  August 18, 2011 at 1:18 PM EDT


Doctors treat a baby in Misrata, Libya. Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images.

The World Health Organization is rushing to secure medical supplies for Libya now that millions in Gadhafi’s government assets can be used for urgent health needs.

The Dutch government agreed Monday to release $144.3 million (100 million in euros) in frozen funds from the Libyan government in response to a direct WHO appeal.

Health facilities across war-torn Libya are running out of vital vaccines and drugs for conditions like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The Libyan government normally imports at least $500 million in medical goods each year, but supply lines have been cut since the violent conflict began in February.

Tarik Jasarevic, WHO spokesperson for medical emergencies, talked with the NewsHour from Geneva about the health needs in Libya and how the funds will be used. Answers have been edited for length.

NewsHour: How does WHO plan to use the released assets, and how soon?

Jasarevic: We are very grateful to the government of the Netherlands, who released the funds which were frozen in one of the banks in Holland, and now we are just waiting for this amount of 100 million euros to come to the account of the World Health Organization.

In the meantime we are already preparing how to procure emergency medicines and medical supplies for Libya. It is important to note the supplies will be delivered to all of Libya and for that purpose we are negotiating with all relevant authorities in Libya including the government in Tripoli, but also the health authorities of the Transitional National Council in Benghazi. Everyone has the same understanding that this 100 million euros will be used to procure medicines that will be distributed to all of the territory of Libya.

NewsHour: Who will be in charge of distributing the supplies?

Jasarevic: Right now we are making these operational plans, we are already talking with different partners. Basically, the WHO will buy the items which are already defined in a list of emergency needs, and this list has been compiled with both the Benghazi and Tripoli health authorities. Then we are looking at the most cost-effective ways of delivering the supplies to different points in Libya, and there we will work with the health authorities who will received the supplies. But also we are looking into finding a partner agency that will do independent monitoring on how these goods are used.

NewsHour: Is there a concern that these medical supplies could be used as assets in the conflict?

Jasarevic: The overarching principle of the WHO and this operation is that the objective is to bring to Libya medicines that are urgently needed. Stocks of potential supplies are already running low; stocks of vaccines, insulin, chemotherapy, laboratory consumables and HIV drugs are really running short and some of them by the end of September will no longer be available. The priority is really to bring these into the country, and again working with all relevant health authorities for the benefit of the population. The WHO will put in place monitoring, and the process will be completely transparent.

NewsHour: What are the greatest medical needs at this point?

Jasarevic: After the conflict started in February, what we’ve seen is the emergence of needs in war-related traumas and injuries, so that is something we had to deal with from the very beginning of this crisis. So for that reason WHO and other partners have been delivering surgical kits — basically trying to cover the medical needs of people who are in a humanitarian crisis.

So this is what we saw in the beginning, but as severe shortages in medical supplies started to have an effect on the overall health system in Libya — because procurement was stalled and the supply lines between Tripoli and Benghazi have been also cut now we are seeing that even medicines for non-communicable diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease are also running short.

So now we have quite a big crisis, so essential medicines and medical supplies are right now the main health priority for Libya. So far, it is important to say, the health system has managed to prevent disease outbreaks and maintain a high level of immunization. However if this shortage of supplies and also of medical staff and workers continues, these achievements will be at risk.

NewsHour: Up until now where were health workers getting medical supplies?

Jasarevic: Most of the health facilities across Libya have been using existing stocks that were replenished during the last procurement in January.

NewsHour: What are the next steps now?

Jasarevic: We are already making plans, contacting suppliers. There are 167 items on the priority list, including vaccines. We are already talking to suppliers and starting preliminary work and waiting for the money to hit the accounts of the organization. According to some of the suppliers it may take up to three months for some of the items to be delivered to Libya. So what we are planning to do along with other organizations is to continue to fill the gap by sending pre-positioned medical kits, but these kits do not contain some very important medicines, so we are really now racing against time.