North Lebanon turns to apothecaries as healthcare costs soar

TRIPOLI, June 14 (Reuters) – Once a gym instructor, Mohammad Abadeen now runs a small apothecary in northern Lebanon, offering affordable herbal treatments to customers tired of chronic drug shortages and price hikes.

The craft dates back thousands of years and is known as alternative or herbal medicine – relying on concoctions made from natural herbs, spices and oils with the aim of treating ailments such as colds, coughs and stomach bugs.

Abadeen comes from a family of apothecaries in the northern port city of Tripoli and, nearly three years after Lebanon’s economic collapse began, demand is growing.

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“When the prices started going up, people started using this alternative medicine,” the 53-year-old said.

Lebanon’s currency has lost more than 90% of its value since 2019, while drug prices have quadrupled, according to an Amnesty International report from December 2021.

In September, the United Nations warned that health care was out of reach for 33% of households in Lebanon. More than half of them could not obtain medicines, either because they were too expensive or because they were no longer in stock in pharmacies.

A few weeks later, the cash-strapped Lebanese government lifted subsidies on most drugs – including those to treat chronic diseases, including cancer – driving up prices even further.

Tripoli, in particular, has been hit hard by the financial maelstrom – the port city was ranked the poorest in the Mediterranean by the United Nations even before the crisis began.

NO SUBSTITUTION

Abadeen said his clients are “exhausted…between different medications, blood tests and exams” – so he offers alternatives such as zoubai, a native herb similar to thyme that can be brewed into tea to soothe a headache. throat .

People are even turning to herbal remedies for more serious ailments, said apothecary Omar al-Rafie.

“Diabetes drugs now cost around a million Lebanese pounds,” Rafie said, nearly twice the country’s minimum monthly wage of around 600,000 pounds.

“Somebody could buy us a weed instead for around £50,000,” the 48-year-old herbalist added.

Lebanon’s Health Ministry was aware of cancer patients using herbal remedies because their treatments were no longer accessible, Acting Health Minister Firas al-Abiad said, warning against dangers.

“It’s worrying. It’s not a substitution, and a lot of people don’t understand that,” he told Reuters.

While pharmaceutical products undergo rigorous testing to determine effectiveness and possible side effects, there is no standardized process for herbal remedies.

Lebanon’s lack of a central laboratory to conduct its own tests or issue regulations leaves the door open to widespread abuse of “uncontrolled substances” like herbal treatments, Abiad said.

Joe Salloum, the head of Lebanon’s pharmaceutical syndicate, said occasional use of herbal concoctions could provide relief – but unregulated dosage could pose health risks.

“When does it become dangerous? When it’s used in a concentrated way, when someone pushes it into a capsule and uses it the wrong way or in the wrong dosage,” Salloum said.

Omar al-Ali, a pharmacist in Tripoli, said his customers were buying pills by the sachet because they could no longer afford an entire box, and more of them were asking for herbal remedies.

“It used to be a minority, but it’s slowly growing as people try to run away from the extreme cost of drugs,” Ali said.

Apothecaries have not been spared from the price hikes either.

After sourcing from places like India and China, many have had to cut back on imports from overseas as they are priced in US dollars, now much stronger than the Lebanese pound.

“We only get what is needed instead of stockpiling widely as we used to,” said apothecary Kamal al-Shahal.

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Additional reporting by Maya Saad and Issam Abdallah; Editing by Maya Gebeily and Ed Osmond

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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