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Lebanon's medical tourism strong despite counterfeiters

The arrest of a man accused of posing as a therapist latest case in a long line highlighting an ongoing problem of medical woes experienced in recent years

Tarek Ali Ahmad

Published: Updated:

The arrest last week of a man accused of posing as a therapist practicing alternative medicine in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, was just the latest case in a long line highlighting an ongoing problem of medical woes experienced by the country in recent years.

While Lebanon is known for its Mediterranean beaches, mountainous regions, and sunny weather, many might be surprised to discover that it is also bustling with foreign nationals from Europe and the Gulf in search of medical care. Lebanon ranks 30th out of 86 in 2014 in quality of health care systems regarding skill and competence of medical staff according to Nation master.

“There are a lot of ill patients coming from Iraq, in need of chronic care who try to be treated in Lebanon. Another section are patients from Europe –as well as other Arab countries - who want plastic surgery,” George Khalil, of Patient Health Care Lebanon, which provides patients with medicinal care at home, told Al Arabiya News.

“Lebanon’s medical industry is among the most important, there are many well-trained doctors,” he added.

The number of Iraqis who travel to American University of Beirut Medical Center for treatment, mainly for cancer cases, has risen from 39 percent of the 2,297 international patients in 2010 to 58 percent of the 2,497 international patients in 2012 according to Middle East health magazine.

Mounes Kalaawi, partner and chief executive of Clemenceau Medical Center (CMC), said 85 percent of foreigners seeking treatment in Lebanon did so for medical reasons other than cosmetic surgery, according to the health magazine.

But several internal predicaments have impacted the country and hampered its progression in the medical arena. These include counterfeit drugs, and botched plastic surgery. These are not helped by ongoing issues of food hygiene that present the population with unwanted health and environmental surprises every day.

Over the past few years, Beirut has witnessed an inflow of counterfeit medicines packaged and sold to the unwitting consumer. These untested, smuggled, medicines – some manufactured illegally in Lebanon - could be potentially fatal to the consumer.

“Counterfeit drugs are by definition dangerous and risky business - a counterfeit drug does not undergo proper quality testing, is not subject to proper protocols of manufacture because they are synthesized in illegal labs, and there is no proof of the validity of their chemical formula,” Former Lebanese Minister of Health Dr Mohammad Khalifeh told Al Arabiya News.

Synonymous with such acts is the “Prince of Medicine”, Abdul Latif Fneish, who has made millions from selling “fake” medicines to the pharmaceutical stores across Lebanon. According to the Lebanese newspaper, Al-Akhbar, sources say “Merchants [who smuggled the medicine] did not use refrigerated transportation. They used metal containers where the internal temperature could reach 60C,” such high temperatures could affect delicate products such as pills or liquid medication.

“Smuggling counterfeit drugs are part of organized crime - the drugs are smuggled through illegal border entries. Their origins cannot be traced easily, and to be marketed in certain areas where the control is poor (Palestinian refugee camps etc.),” Dr Khalifeh added.

“There are large networks of smugglers that work together at many levels in order to secure the success of their crimes… Some have gone to extreme lengths to ensure that their counterfeit drugs have the same serial numbers as the original manufacturer’s (the numbers are acquired by unknown methods) in order to avoid getting caught.”

Fneish, who is the brother of Lebanese Minister Mohammad Fneish, has since been arrested.

Lebanon’s health care system is still very well respected, with its physician to patient ratio ranking 33 out of 193 countries with 3.25 physicians to every 1000 patients in 2006 according to the statistics site Nation master.