Libya: Hospitals in rebel-held Benghazi 'face crisis'

Children's cancer ward at Benghazi hospital
Image caption Hospital staff say they have to share out what drugs are left among the sick children

A medical crisis is looming in eastern Libya with hospitals in Benghazi running short of supplies, the rebels' health minister says.

Stocks of drugs and other items such as surgical gloves are said to be running out.

Dr Nagi Barakat told the BBC that most emergency aid donated from abroad went straight to the front line.

He said that if a new offensive broke out, hospitals would face a major crisis.

On the cancer ward of Benghazi's children's hospital, most patients are not getting the right dosage. There aren't enough drugs to go round.

Dr Amina Bayou says she and her colleagues juggle supplies to give everyone a little.

"We try to divide the drugs between this patient and that patient. It's not good," she said.

"We are treating more than 200 children. We ask parents to go to Egypt to buy medicines and when they bring them back, we divide them up like parcelling out food."

In one room, a two-year-old called Bubaker lies listlessly. His leukaemia is advanced and he is not responding to treatment, says Dr Bayou, because the dose isn't strong enough.

Next door, six-year-old Melak is doing better. She too has leukaemia and is recovering from a severe lung infection. Doctors found anti-fungal drugs to treat her after a desperate search - the last medicine of its kind in all Benghazi. Without it, she would now be dead.

It is not just cancer drugs that are running out in Benghazi's hospitals.

Image caption Shelves are rapidly being cleared of what medical supplies are left, rebel officials say

Dr Barakat, a Libyan doctor who returned from London to take up the post of health minister in the rebels' interim government, says the situation is critical.

The list of 150 items needed urgently include surgical gloves and gauze as well as a whole array of drugs needed for cardiac patients and, critically, in the intensive care units.

At the Hawari General Hospital, director Dr Ezzedin Benomran is at his wits' end.

He reckons that more than 20 patients have died since February because of the lack of medical supplies.

Stocks of the narcotics needed for anaesthetic procedures are so low that the hospital has had to close nine of its 12 operating theatres.

The surgeons only operate on emergency cases - four a day - and many of those are patients with serious gunshot wounds, transferred to Benghazi from the front line in Misrata.

Cash shortage

Dr Barakat says here is little left over for women who need caesarean sections, or casualties from car accidents or other domestic accidents.

In any case, he adds, the amounts donated by foreign governments and NGOs cannot meet the demands of all the hospitals in a large city like Benghazi, which services the entire population of eastern Libya.

Medical stocks were already low in February. Now they have been run down in some cases almost to zero, he says.

Image caption Critically wounded fighters are among those requiring scant hospital resources

"We have only 2-3 weeks' supply of cancer drugs," said Dr Barakat. "They used to be allocated to us from a central point in Tripoli. We have no access to that now."

The rebel leadership says it would willingly pay for new supplies if only it had the money, but its stock of cash has also run out.

A week ago rebel leaders appealed to the outside world to help unlock funds and loans to sort out the cash flow problem and avoid a social and medical crisis in the city.

A week on - according to senior sources in the leadership - there is still no sign of any cash being made available.

Dr Barakat says this is only one of his worries.

So far the hospitals are just about keeping afloat, despite the shortages. But if there were to be any new pressure on the system, he fears it could break it.

"If Tripoli falls tomorrow, we will have major crisis," he said.

"If there are new mass casualties on the front line here in the east because of an assault on Brega and Ras Lanuf there will be too.

"I am worried because any time the army moves forward and there are mass casualties, I am sure we will not be able to cope."