Pharmacists warn that insulin is becoming prohibitively expensive in Myanmar, as the country’s military junta continues to limit imports in a bid to hold onto scarce dollars.
Hit by an array of sanctions since seizing power two and a half years ago, the regime has dramatically increased the amount of time that it takes to get an import permit, resulting in severe shortages of vital medical supplies.
According to importers, an application process that once took two weeks to complete now takes at least two months.
In a country that relies on imports to meet around 90% of its medical needs, this has translated into a growing crisis that has been especially hard on patients with serious chronic conditions such as diabetes.
According to a pharmacist in the southern Shan State town of Pindaya, supplies of Mixtard, a well-known brand of injectable insulin, have completely dried up there over the past two months. Other brands are also scarce, he added.
If the shortage continues, he said, it could become life-threatening for many diabetics living in the area.
While the Food and Drug Administration, which operates under the junta’s ministry of health, has reportedly issued an urgent call for more insulin, this appears to have had little impact, as the ministry of economy and commerce continues to restrict import licences.
“Everything is jammed up now, as the process takes too long,” said one importer who did not want to be named.
He explained that most of the insulin used in Myanmar comes from Europe, India, or Bangladesh, and must be paid for in US dollars. More recently, however, importers are turning to Thai and Chinese suppliers selling in their own currencies.
But even these purchases are facing hurdles, he added.
“I’ve heard that they are no longer granting permits for imports paid for in yuan,” said the importer, noting that until now, the Chinese yuan has been more widely used than the Thai baht.
A retailer based in Yangon said that the cost of insulin has soared—at times doubling in price—due to the huge gap between supply and demand.
“Our stock ran out at one point as we couldn’t import any more. There are so many diabetics in Myanmar, so it became very expensive,” said the retailer.
Currently, he said, a bottle of Mixtard sells for around 26,000 kyat, or about 6,000 kyat more than the usual price.
A doctor taking part in the Civil Disobedience Movement warned that the health of diabetes patients could rapidly deteriorate if they don’t get the insulin they need.
“They can get sores on their feet, which will not heal and could get infected. Diabetes usually comes together with heart conditions, so they could also get coronary diseases and blockages,” he said.
A Mandalay woman suffering from diabetes said that other medications had also become extremely expensive in the city, or had disappeared altogether.
“The pharmacies have run out of stock and the prices are sky high now. It’s a disastrous situation for patients who don’t have much money,” she said.
On its website, the Myanmar Diabetes Mellitus Association says that more than one in 10 people in Myanmar between the ages of 25 and 64 have diabetes, according to a survey in 2014.