Distributors explain shortage, high cost of asthma inhalers

Pharmacists say the popular Ventolin brand is becoming impossible to get and prices of the others have doubled

In Summary
  • KPDA chairman Dr Kamamia Murichu told The Star the situation was worse in November last year when there were no inhalers in the market
  • An official of PPB  said they held discussions with the distributors, ECitizen and Pesaflow last month and the payment delays have been resolved
Inhaler bottle
LIFELINE: Inhaler bottle

Drug importers have blamed the government’s single payment system for the shortage of asthma inhalers and other key drugs.

Pharmacists said the popular Ventolin inhaler, made by GSK, is completely unavailable.

Other Salbutamol inhaler brands are in short supply and have become expensive.

Inhalers are the safest, most effective treatment for asthma. They allow people with asthma to lead a normal, active life.

Early last year they cost about Sh250 a piece but currently, sell for at least Sh500. People with severe asthma need to replace an inhaler almost every three weeks.

The Kenya Pharmaceutical Distributors Association attributed the shortage to the government’s single, newly designated Paybill Number, 222222.

KPDA chairman Dr Kamamia Murichu told the Star the situation was worse in November last year, when there were practically no inhalers in the market.

“It’s not just inhalers, there is a shortage of many drugs including cancer medications,” he said.

All drug importers pay a 0.75 per cent free on board through the Pharmacy and Poisons Board.

Free on board is a shipment term indicating the point at which a buyer or seller assumes ownership and liability for goods being transported.

“When the President issued the directive on 222222 paybill [in August 2023], systems to support the payment were not in place. So when you pay the 0.75 per cent on Ecitizen, Pesaflow was supposed to support the payment and PPB would need to see evidence from their end that you have paid. But they could not access these payments," Murichu said.

"Up to now there are drugs we paid for in November and December that have not come into the market.”

He said importers pay Equity Bank or KCB in dollars and the two banks convert the money into local currency and remit the payment to PPB through the single paybill.

“There was also a shortage of dollars so sometimes we were forced to go to Eastleigh to buy the dollars and bring them to the banks,” Murichu said.

“The shortage has been caused purely by transition to the single payment system, not the exit of GSK from the Kenyan market."

GSK exited Kenya in December last year due to low sales and a shift in focus to its more profitable prescription drugs and vaccines business.

The foreign currency crisis also increased its operational costs.

At that time, it said the company was not exiting Kenya per se, but pivoting to a third-party distributorship, which it was still processing.

It said it will keep its manufacturing facility in Nairobi's Industrial Area operating under its independent consumer healthcare subsidiary, Haleon.

The company also shut down operations in Nigeria.

The exit came at a time when manufacturers in Kenya were lamenting high operational costs.

Murichu said the depreciation of the Shilling against major currencies has inflated drug prices.

The shilling is currently changing at Sh163 against the dollar, Sh178 against the euro and Sh208 against the pound.

Although most drugs used in Kenya are bought from India, the payments are usually made in major currencies, mostly the dollar.

“The new rates mean the drugs have become expensive. Kenya Revenue Authority has also become more aggressive. When we buy cheap drugs they insist we are devaluing them and so they impose higher levies,” Murichu said.

The Star reached out to CEO of Pharmacy and Poisons Board Fred Siyoi but he did not immediately respond.

An official at the board said they held discussions with the distributors, ECitizen and Pesaflow last month and the payment delays have been resolved.

“We are now able to confirm the payments immediately,” the official said.

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