By Diego Oré
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Hermes Soto, who turned 5 on Monday, will not be celebrating his birthday with friends. Instead, he is bracing for his 15th chemotherapy session to tackle a rare but aggressive form of cancer that threatens to kill him.
For his mother, Esperanza Paz, the ordeal is compounded by fears of another round of shortages in the supply of the life-saving vincristine drug needed to treat the soft-tissue cancer in her son’s forearm.
“He can relapse. The cancer can come back,” said Paz, after a vital round of chemotherapy was delayed by a week in mid-January due to vincristine shortages in his Mexico City hospital.
“The concern is that Hermes is now in the final stage of his treatment. We only need two cycles of chemotherapy to finish,” added Paz, a crafts-maker who lives with her three small children in a modest home in the capital.
Hermes, who has undergone three surgeries since October 2018, is one of dozens of children whose cancer treatment has been imperilled by shortages following a procurement shake-up by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s government, which centralized drug purchases to reduce corruption and overpricing.
Lawyer Andrea Rocha represents parents of more than 60 children, mostly cancer patients, who have been unable to find the correct medicines in Mexico in recent months. She has filed lawsuits aimed at compelling the government to give the children medicine.
The festering issue has morphed into a major headache for Lopez Obrador, popular for his promises to improve the lot of Mexico’s most vulnerable. Images of sick children and distraught parents criticizing the government from crowded hospital wards have led to tough questions aimed at the president in news conferences.
Lopez Obrador has said in recent weeks that Mexico now has enough medicines. He said scarcity in recent months was linked to Mexican pharmaceutical distributors who were resisting the procurement changes, along with hospital officials who he said hoarded medicines and supply issues from drug companies in China and India.
The president’s office and the health ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Sporadic shortages of medicines predate Lopez Obrador, but the rise in protests from parents is a sign the problem has worsened. [nL4N2332WL] Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, an independent government body, said it had received more than 500 complaints about shortages since November.
“We didn’t have a first-rate health system before but since the change of administration, the problem of shortages has grown immensely,” said Rocha. “There has never been such a big crisis.”
For a while, some parents were able to deal with the problem by forking out extra cash to buy prescription medicine in private pharmacies. But they say some drugs are now unavailable even privately.
On Jan. 1, the government scrapped the Popular Insurance healthcare system, which charged fees and had a membership system. Instead, it launched a universal healthcare system that is free at point of use, the Health Institute for Wellbeing, or Insabi.
“The president tells us that there will be a total supply from December 1. But cancer does not wait,” said Paz, referring to Lopez Obrador’s recent comments that Insabi would provide access to free medicine and a health system comparable to Denmark’s before the end of the year.
Denmark allocates more than 10% of its GDP to health, while Mexico contributes 5.9%.
Childhood cancer is the second-highest cause of death among children in Mexico, according to official figures. Each year, an average of 2,300 children die from 7,500 new cases.
While official data is not available, parents say two young boys died because of the lack of medicine in recent months.
The shortages are also impacting non-cancer patients, including children who underwent organ transplants.
This is particularly dangerous for children such as 7 year-old Diana, who has had 19 operations and had to wait four years for a kidney transplant.
Her mother, Monica Marquez, a 41-year-old handicraft seller, said she had to pay out of pocket and rely on donations to buy Tacrolimus and Mycophenolic acid, two vital immunosuppressive drugs for her daughter.
But shortages have caused the price of Tacrolimus to shoot up from 2,500 pesos ($135) to 14,000 pesos ($755) for a two-week dose, making it unaffordable for low-income families.
Fearing her daughter will relapse and “go back to the way she was before,” Marquez’s frustration with the government grows.
“I feel that they are underplaying it,” she said. “They are trying to cover the sun with a finger when clearly there is a very big problem.”
(Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Dan Grebler)