A severe shortage of medical gloves has left medical personnel at risk of contracting infectious diseases as stocks quickly dwindle or run completely dry.

The shortage has forced medical personnel to ask patients to bring gloves with them, while others still conduct examinations barehanded. The demand for gloves and personal protective equipment (PPE) has surged since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

The Ethiopian Pharmaceutical Supply Agency (EPSA) is the federal body mandated with undertaking the procurement and supply of pharmaceutical equipment to health centres and hospitals across the country. Its officials admit shortage but also claim a one month's supply of disposable gloves of around 2.2 million units in stock.

What is seen on the ground points to the contrary.

Hanan Sergeta (MD), medical staff at St. Paul Hospital for almost eight years, saw her colleagues left with no option but to conduct examinations barehanded. The shortage has been around in the Hospital for almost a year now, according to her.

"Patients buy the gloves that medical staff uses to examine them," Hanan told Fortune.

The dismal situation is similar in other hospitals in Addis Abeba and regional health centres.

Black Lion Hospital, the largest referral health facility in the country, has seen shortages frustrating its medical staff, who are compelled to function barehanded for disposable gloves were nowhere to be found. A few of them use surgical gloves bought by patients admitted to the hospital, medical staff toldFortune.

"We've resorted to reusing examination gloves after sanitising them," said a medical doctor working at the Hospital.

Solomon Nigussie, director for pharmaceuticals procurement administration at the Agency, attributed the shortage to delayed shipments, defects in gloves bought, order cancellation and high demand in the global market.

The Agency bought several batches of gloves from CGF Business Group, a domestic manufacturer, four months ago, in an attempt to allow local producers to supply personal protective equipment. However, a test conducted by the Ethiopian Food & Drugs Authority identified four batches of gloves, 2,000 units each on average, were defective. The Agency had collected the gloves after they were distributed to health centres.

"Overseas manufactures were closed during the COVID-19 outbreak," said Solomon. "When they opened, they were all booked with other orders."

Major suppliers repeatedly rejected orders from Ethiopia, disclosed Solomon.

The global demand for disposable gloves has increased by 45pc since the onset of the pandemic. There is an estimated shortfall of 214 million gloves owing to lags in production due to a shortage in raw materials and constraints to boost supply. This has led to a surge in prices.

A pair of surgical gloves cost 18 Br, while a pack of gloves with 100 units costs 120 Br. The wholesale price for a pack containing was priced at 2.4 dollars before the COVID-19 outbreak; it now costs about eight dollars. It is anticipated to increase to 10 dollars in the coming few months, especially in countries where Ethiopia primarily sources medical gloves—China, Malaysia and Vietnam.

The Pharmaceutical Agency looks into ways to source medical gloves with development partners such as the World Bank, the Korean Exim Bank and the Global Fund. The Agency has placed an order for 150 million units from Malaysia and Vietnam through FMS Global, an international gloves supplier. Close to 75 million of these have already been produced, but the Agency has been unable to bring them due to a shortage of shipping containers.

Officials at the Agency have arranged for the batch to be delivered through airline shipping.

"As surges in demand are likely to continue, our Agency will stock a year's supply from here on," Solomon told Fortune.

The Agency has budgeted 40 million dollars to keep stocks enough for a year through its 19 branches, distributing to about 5,000 health centres across the country. The Korean Exim Bank has released 30 million dollars to help buy gloves and for COVID-19 response efforts, and half of the money has already been utilised, according to the Ministry of Health. The Ministry has requested Gavi, a global alliance that aims to avail access to vaccination to developing countries, to use funds availed for vaccines to buy pharmaceutical supplies, including gloves.

"We'll proceed if Gavi approves our request," said Regassa Bayisa, head of the Pharmaceuticals & Medical Equipment Directorate at the Ministry.

Dawit Assefa (PhD) is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the Addis Abeba Institute of Technology. He finds it surprising that there is no viable way to manufacture gloves locally. But producing gloves requires robust industrial capacity that is not available in the country.

"COVID-19 has brought an opportunity for the private sector," Dawit said.

He attributed the non-existence of domestic gloves production capacity to a lack of interest among the private sector, which seems to be more invested in hospitality and the service sector than in health. He believes the government should encourage private companies to begin production locally or invite foreign investors to substitute medical equipment imports in general, from gloves to MRI machines.

PUBLISHED ON Jun 19,2021 [ VOL 22 , NO 1103]

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