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Restore the Senaka Bibile Policies

22 Feb 2024 - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}      

With Sri Lanka facing its most painful public health crisis since independence, a sub-committee to formulate a “Charter for Ensuring Patients’ Safety and Well-Being” was set up in Parliament on October 19 last year by Parliamentarian Mayantha Dissanayake, the Chairperson of the Sectoral Oversight Committee on Health established in terms of Standing Order 111 of Parliament. This sub-committee is chaired by Parliamentarian Upul Galappaththi and consists of two members. As the committee is focused on considering public views and suggestions prior to formulating the final draft of the charter, the public, other interested parties and organisations may submit their views and suggestions regarding matters to be included in the charter to e-mail address: [email protected] or to the following address along with the name, contact number and email address of the sender before March 15 this year:  The Secretary, Office of the Sectoral Oversight Committees, Parliament of Sri Lanka, Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte. The committee shall decide if it is desirous of taking oral submissions from those who make representations. Please note that this notice has also been placed on the official website of the Parliament: www.parliament.lk. 

Some 25 years ago a group of public health activists came together to form the People’s Movement for the Rights of Patients (PMRP). It grew to be a multi-racial and multi-religious movement with people participating from various parts of the country. The PMRP’s main objective was the revival of the policy of Prof. Senaka Bibile who was considered a prophet of modern medicine. 
In 1970, when Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s United Left Front (ULF) won the General Election with a sweeping majority, one of her first steps was the drafting of a policy for public health. The committee comprised Prof. Bibile and another public health activist, Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe, who was also the Chairman of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka. They acted fast and the government set up the State Pharmaceuticals Corporation (SPC) and the State Pharmaceuticals Manufacturing Corporation (SPMC). The objective was to import and gradually make quality medicinal drugs at affordable prices. They acted on five principals in providing drugs — quality, safety, efficacy, the cost of the drug and need for it. At that time, Prof. Bibile believed about 500 medicinal drugs were sufficient for Sri Lanka. But today we are importing more than 10,000 varieties; most of them non-essential and intended to make the pharmacies rich instead if curing the people. The committee faced opposition from a powerful drug mafia operating in Sri Lanka and most other countries. So much so that the world drug mafia influenced the United States government to demand that Prof. Bibile be removed from his post. Prof. Bibile is known to have called his deputy, Dr. K. Balasubramaniam, Chairman of Health Action International Asia Pacific (HAIAP).  Dr. Balasubramanium said Dr. Bibile had told him, “The Honourable PM wants to see us, I think we’re finished.” The Prime Minister told them that the US had threatened to cut off the PL480 wheat flour subsidy if Prof. Bibile was not removed. The PM, Mrs. Bandaranaike was sad but helpless because Sri Lanka heavily depended on the PL480. Prof. Bibile quit and took up a United Nations post in British Guyana where he died in mysterious circumstances at the age of about 57. Eminent medical personnel including Prof. Carlo Fonseka believe he was killed but family members have doubts about it. 
Some 20 years after, the PMRP launched a vigorous campaign to restore the Bibile principle. The movement filed a Fundamental Rights petition in the Supreme Court on the basis that people were being denied their Fundamental Right to good health. However, before a verdict was given, the Yahapalanaya government was elected to office in 2015, and then Health Minister, Rajitha Senarathna took urgent and effective steps to restore the Bibile principles. It is alleged that before the 2015 Presidential Election, one candidate’s supporters were given as much as Rs. 1,000 million by more than 25 drug companies. 

After the change of government in 2019, the SPC and SPMC were virtually sidelined along with the Bibile policies, and this apparently led to the present crisis where Health Minister, Keheliya Rambukwella was sacked and sent to remand prison for the alleged importation of substandard drugs through a fictitious company! It is a tragedy that after Prof. Senaka Bibile made Sri Lanka a people-friendly model for medicinal drugs, today we are in one hell of a mess, with people coming from long distances to state hospitals, but being turned away because there are no drugs, or for some other reasons. In a negative sense, what cannot be cured must be endured.