Iranians say US sanctions blocking life-saving medicine

Iran's health system can't cope and many blame President Trump's punitive campaign for staggering prices and shortages.

    Many Iranians blame acute medicine shortages on punishing US sanctions [Ebrahim Noroozi/AP]
    Many Iranians blame acute medicine shortages on punishing US sanctions [Ebrahim Noroozi/AP]

    With Iran's economy in free fall from "maximum pressure" American sanctions, prices of imported medicines have soared as the national currency tumbled about 70 percent against the dollar.

    Even medicines manufactured in Iran are tougher to come by for ordinary Iranians. The cost is out of reach for many in a country where the average monthly salary is equivalent to about $450.

    Iran's health system can't keep up and many are blaming US President Donald Trump's punitive campaign for the staggering prices and shortages. The sanctions have hurt ordinary Iranians, sending prices for everything from staples and consumer goods to housing skyward, while raising the spectre of war with the United States.

    Taha Shakouri keeps finding remote corners to play in at a Tehran children's charity hospital, unaware that his doctors are running out of chemotherapy medicine needed to treat the eight-year-old boy's liver cancer.

    Taha's mother, Laya Taghizadeh, said the hospital provides her son's medication for free - a single treatment would otherwise cost $1,380 at a private hospital. She added the family is deeply grateful to the doctors and the hospital staff.

    "We couldn't make it without their support," the 30-year-old woman said. "My husband is a simple grocery store worker and this is a very costly disease."

    The Iranian rial has plunged from 32,000 to the dollar at the time of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers to about 120,000 rials to the dollar these days, greatly affecting prices of imported medicines.

    The famous 2015 nuclear deal involving Iran and world powers had raised expectations of a better life for many Iranians, free of the chokehold of international sanctions.

    The accord lifted international sanctions in exchange for curbs on Iran's nuclear programme, but now the deal has all but unravelled after the US pulled out last year and new and tougher US sanctions were imposed.

    'Obvious lie'

    While the US insists that medicines and humanitarian goods are exempt from sanctions, restrictions on trade have made many banks and companies across the world hesitant to do business with Iran, fearing punitive measures from Washington. The country is cut off from the international banking system.

    Last week, Health Minister Saeed Namaki said budget cuts, because of the drop in crude exports, have dramatically affected his department. The US sanctions have targeted all classes of Iranians, he added.

    "The American claims that medicine and medical equipment are not subject to sanctions is a big and obvious lie," Namaki said.

    "Our biggest concern is that channels to the outside world are closed," said Dr Arasb Ahmadian, head of the Mahak Children's Hospital, which is run through charity donations and supports some 32,000 under-16s across Iran.

    The banking sanctions have blocked transactions, preventing donations from abroad, he said. Transfers of money simply fail, including those approved by the US Treasury.

    "Indeed, we are losing hope," said Ahmadian. "Medicines should be purchasable, funding should be available, and lines of credit should be clearly defined in the banking system."

    Official reports say Iran produces some 95 percent of the basic medicines it needs and even exports some of the production to neighbouring countries.

    But when it comes to more sophisticated medication for costly and rare illnesses and medical equipment, Iran depends heavily on imports. And though the state provides healthcare for all, many treatments needed for complicated cases are simply not available. Many prefer to go to private hospitals if they can and avoid long waiting lists at state-run hospitals.

    'Punishing' terminally ill

    Long lines form every morning in the 13-Aban Pharmacy in central Karimikhan Street, where people come looking for rare medicines for sick family members.

    Hamid Reza Mohammadi, 53, spends much of his free time going in search of drugs for his wife and daughter, both of whom suffer from muscular dystrophy.

    "Two, three months ago I could easily get the prescription filled in any pharmacy," Mohammadi said, reflecting how quickly things have deteriorated.

    Pharmacist Peyman Keyvanfar said many Iranians, with their purchasing power slashed, cannot afford imported medicines and are looking for domestically-manufactured substitutes. "There has been a very sharp increase in the prices of medicines, sometimes up to three to four times for some," he said.

    Those who still have some cash often turn to the black market.

    Mahmoud Alizadeh, a 23-year-old student, rushed to the shady Nasser-Khosrow Street in southern Tehran when he got word that his mother's multiple sclerosis drug was available there.

    "She is just 45-years old, it's too soon to see her so badly paralyzed," he said.

    He pays three times more for the drug on the street than he did in May 2018. "I don't know on whom Trump imposed sanctions except that he is punishing terminally ill people here."

    Many travel from rural areas to bigger cities in search of drugs for their loved ones.

    Hosseingholi Barati, a 48-year-old father of three, came to Tehran from the town of Gonbad Kavus, about 550km northeast of the capital, looking for medication for his leukaemia-stricken wife. He has spent $7,700 so far on her illness.

    "It's a huge strain," he said. "I have sold everything I owned and borrowed money from family and friends."

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    SOURCE: AP news agency