Yesterday we again commemorated the 36th anniversary of the death of Prof. Senaka Bibile who is widely regarded as the greatest medical benefactor of humanity that Sri Lanka has hitherto produced. What he did for the people of Sri Lanka and the world is well-known. But according to Senior Minister Professor Tissa Vitharana, it is possible that the threat he posed to the powerful trans-national pharmaceutical corporations may have had some bearing on his premature death while on a United Nations assignment in British Guyana to introduce his policies on the rational use of medicinal drugs.
Veteran physician and university lecturer Dr. Mark Amerasinghe, a close friend and admirer of Prof. Bibile has in an article pointed out the most significant aspect of Senaka Bibile’s thinking regarding drug prescription and drug usage. Prof. Bibile did not advocate the use of a drug simply because it was the cheapest available in the market. His prime concern was the patient’s health. If the patient's needs could be met equally well by drug A, which cost the patient less than drug B, then Prof. Bibile spared no pains to make the low-cost, yet effective drug available to the people and he urged doctors to prescribe the low-cost drugs.
But the import of raw materials from the source country-a procedure that helped to cut costs by by-passing the powerful trans-national drug corporations was part of his policy where he insisted on effective quality control of the product before it was put out for use by patients.
Prof. Bibile insisted that the drug used had to be of the highest quality and this could be ensured only by having an effective and efficiently run quality control laboratory.
Prof. Bibile, Sri Lanka’s first Professor of Pharmacology was well aware of the economic neo-colonialism being continued by the rich western countries to plunder the wealth and resources of the Third World countries. This is being done mainly through the powerful trans-national corporations which plunder the third world resources in the vital areas of food including milk, pharmaceuticals and agro-chemicals.
In this awareness Prof. Bibile along with Communist Party Leader Dr. S. A. Wickremasinghe worked out an essential medicines concept or a policy for the rational use of pharmaceuticals. It was not a case of giving only cheap generic drugs, as some TNCs and their agents including politicians and some medical specialists try to make out. Instead it was a case of making available quality drugs to the people at affordable prices.
This policy was accepted by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s United Front government and implemented in 1971. The State Pharmaceuticals Corporation was set up and Prof. Bibile became its first chairman. He cared so much for the people and the workers that he also became the chairman of the SPC trade union, perhaps the first head of a major corporation to be also the head of its trade union. Though there was much opposition from the TNCs and their multitude of agents or operators here, Prof. Bibile continued the policy for the rational use of pharmaceuticals. Yet the TNCs are so powerful and wield so much influence that they were able to get the government of the United States to take tough action to stop Prof. Bibile’s policy.
Insiders say the then US Ambassador in Sri Lanka met Premier Bandaranaike in 1976 and told her that if the Bibile policy was not scrapped and if Sri Lanka did not import thousands of drugs from the TNCs the US would cut off aid to Sri Lanka. The Premier had no option but to give in because Sri Lanka at that time depended far too much on US aid. She immediately called Prof. Bibile to Temple Trees and when going there with his faithful golaya, Dr. Kumaraiah Balasubramanium, who had worked closely with him for more than 20 years, Prof. Bibile had said “We are finished”. So it was. Sad and disappointed, Dr. Bibile quit the SPC and went to British Guyana while Sri Lanka was forced to allow the TNCs to virtually run our pharmaceutical sector.
For more than 10 years health ministers have been promising to reintroduce regulations to implement the Bibile policies but these have been mere words and promises. We hope that at least this year, one of the prophets of modern medicine will be honoured in his own home not by mere words but by implementing his policy.