Missing Medicines in Malawi: Campaigning against stock-outs of essential drugs

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Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. The government has introduced some measures to improve the health of its people, but a number of major problems remain. One of these is the lack of essential medicines in government health clinics – known as ‘stock-outs’. These medicines should be free to poor people, but most find that they have to pay. This case study – one of a series of Programme Insights on Local Governance and Community Action – looks at an innovative campaign which aimed to tackle this problem by enhancing the capacity of local communities and civil society organizations to demand the right to access these medicines. The campaign lobbied for a commitment to increased availability and accessibility in rural areas and carried out budget and resource tracking. The case study looks at the difficulties the campaign faced and outlines the factors that contributed to its success.
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    Missing Medicines in Malawi Campaigning against ‘stock-outs’ of essential drugs  A community march to protest about the lack of basic medicines at the local clinic. The march was followed by an event to discuss health issues with partner organizations and local leaders.  Photo: Word Alive Commission for Relief and Development (WACRAD), Malawi. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. The government has introduced some measures to improve the health of its people, but a number of major problems remain. One of these is the lack of essential medicines in government health clinics – known as ‘stock-outs’. These medicines should be free to poor people, but most find that they have to pay. This paper looks at an innovative campaign which aimed to tackle this problem by enhancing the capacity of local communities and civil society organizations to demand the right to access these medicines. The campaign also lobbied for a commitment to ensure increased availability and accessibility in rural areas and carried out budget and resource tracking. This paper looks at the difficulties the campaign faced and outlines the factors that contributed to its success.    P  r  o  g  r  a  m  m  e   I  n  s   i  g   h   t  s    2 Missing Medicines in Malawi: Campaigning against stock-outs of essential drugs Oxfam Programme Insights Introduction Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, with more than half its population living on less than a dollar a day. Local-level campaigning on access to medicines took place in six districts in the southern part of the country. ‘Access to essential medicines is a human right and a cornerstone of an effective primary health care system.’ 1 Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. It ranks 171 out of 187 countries on both the Human Development Index and the Gender Inequality Index.   2 More than half of its 14 million people live on less than a dollar a day. On average, people can only expect to live until they are 54. 3 In terms of health, although things are slowly improving, real problems remain. Malnutrition among children is a major issue. One woman in every 100 dies in pregnancy or childbirth.  4  HIV and AIDS affect almost a million people, and have orphaned some 500,000 children. 5  In addition, there is a chronic shortage of health workers: the country’s entire population is looked after by just 266 registered doctors. 6 However, during the past ten years, the government has introduced some measures to improve the health of its people: ã  The Essential Healthcare Package (EHP) , which focuses on a cost-effective package of essential health services: under the EHP, which covers 11 common diseases, medicines are supposed to be free at the point of delivery in public hospitals and clinics; ã  A Sector Wide Approach (SWAp) , which the government has adopted as the overarching strategy for health. This means that all funding agencies support a shared, sector-wide policy and    3 Missing Medicines in Malawi: Campaigning against stock-outs of essential drugs Oxfam Programme Insights strategy, with clear sector targets and a budget and a focus on results; ã   Decentralization of the Health Care Management Service : Health services, including the EHP, are supposed to be decided on and delivered at district level by the District Assemblies, giving local authorities and communities more power to decide what is needed in each area. But decentralization has only happened partially. There have been no local government structures since 1999 and no elected local councillors since 2005. Local elections have been postponed once more, until 2014. However, citizens have been able to use bodies such as local drug committees to have a say in how issues are prioritized. Empty shelves: the lack of essential medicines ‘Access to basic health services by poor and vulnerable groups living in rural areas is one of the things that need to be improved if poverty is to be overcome.’    –    Mr.   Chris Kang’ombe, former Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Health, 2008. 7  At the World Health Assembly in 1977, governments made a commitment to ensure that essential medicines were available in public health facilities. Yet more than 30 years later, many African countries stock only about half the core set of medicines used to treat common diseases such as malaria, pneumonia, diarrhoea, HIV, tuberculosis, diabetes, and hypertension. These are the diseases which cause the highest numbers of deaths, and they disproportionately affect poor people, especially in rural areas.  8 Despite the government’s recognition of the importance of this issue, drug shortages and long periods when no medicines are available (known as drug ‘stock-outs’) are still being experienced in Malawi on a regular basis.  A case study undertaken by Oxfam found that only 9 per cent of local health facilities (54 out of 585) provided the full EHP list of essential drugs. Clinics were frequently out of basic antibiotics, HIV test kits, and insecticide-tr eated nets, and stocks of vaccines had run dangerously low. 9 In addition, although basic drugs and services are supposed to be available free of charge under the EHP, in reality most people have to pay for them. The poorest households spend up to 10 per cent of their annual disposable income on health care. The lack of free essential medicines in government clinics and hospitals is due to a combination of poor investment in personnel and infrastructure, inadequate resources, and corruption and mismanagement. These issues need to be examined and acted upon by those responsible, including the Ministry of Health (MoH), the Central Medical Stores (CMS, the national pharmacy of the MoH), and district health officers. However, it is not easy for people in Malawi to challenge the authorities. The country has been a democracy only since 1994.  Although freedom of speech is guaranteed in the country’s constitution, in the past speaking out against government policy was severely punished. Many people still choose to remain silent for fear of retribution. Civil society is still in its infancy, and the majority of non-government organizations (NGOs) are less than ten years old. Few engage in advocacy and campaigning. 10  This is why the Access to Medicines campaign was so important.    4 Missing Medicines in Malawi: Campaigning against stock-outs of essential drugs Oxfam Programme Insights The Access to Medicines campaign ‘Medicines are a big challenge. We have a lot of gaps. When you come to treat patients it’s frustrating when you find that what you were supposed to prescribe is unavailable.’    – Dr Matias Joshua, District Health Officer, Dowa hospital  11 The campaign, which ran from 2007 to 2010, aimed to give poor people equitable access to basic medicines under the EHP. Oxfam’s main role was to facilitate civil society engagement so that the voices of poor women and men could be heard. It also provided technical support and partnership management, and supported local civil society organizations (CSOs) to build their capacity on advocacy work. The campaign had three main objectives: ã  To enhance the capacity of local communities and CSOs to demand the right to access essential drugs; ã  To lobby for a clear, demonstrable commitment to ensure increased availability and accessibility of drugs in rural areas; ã  To carry out budget and resource tracking at local and national levels in order to increase the accessibility of essential drugs in rural areas and accountability in their provision. The campaign had both a national and a local dimension. At the national level it focused on policy targets, enabling women and men to speak directly to members of parliament, key cabinet ministers, and other actors. National partners included the Malawi Health Equity Network (MHEN), 12  which represents a broad range of CSOs in speaking out on health equity issues, and the National Association for People Living with HIV/AIDS in Malawi (NAPHAM), 13  At local level, the partners were the Word Alive Commission for Relief and Development (WACRAD), a faith-based organization which works on a number of issues including health and livelihoods, and the Development Communication Trust (DCT), a regional NGO which specialises in governance and which facilitated direct voices on health issues in this campaign. a network of support groups. Other partners were the Malawi Global Campaign  Against Poverty (GCAP) Coalition and the National Organization for Nurses and Midwives. At national level, the campaign lobbied key political figures, used the media to build consistent and co-ordinated messages, and mobilized the public on the issue of shortages of drugs during both World Poverty Day and World Health Day. Oxfam and its partners worked directly with communities in six districts, in particular targeting district health officers. This approach aimed to change district-level policies that had an impact on the availability of medicines. It was also intended to build the capacity of accountability mechanisms, such as local drug committees, to equip them to challenge the systems and mechanisms that had negatively affected the availability of drugs.
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