Pharmaceuticals are in such short supply in Uzbekistan that many people resort to purchasing medicines abroad for themselves or relatives. However, they fall foul of customs searches intended to stop unlicensed drugs coming in for commercial sale.
An epilepsy sufferer in the capital Tashkent was stopped at the border when he tried to bring back medication from Russia.
"The customs officers wouldn’t allow the medicine in – they said it was a prohibited substance," he said. “How can it be prohibited if it is recognised throughout the world? The pharmacies here don’t sell effective medicines for people with epilepsy, but they won’t allow you to bring it in from other countries, either."
Another Tashkent resident described how she got a relative to bring back two types of drug from Russia for her colon cancer, as they are unavailable in Uzbekistan.
"My relative wasn’t allowed to bring them in. The medicines were seized by customs officers on the grounds that they weren’t licensed," she said.
The authorities have tightened up on imports of foreign medicines by getting customs officers to check individuals carrying small amounts.
Part of the reason seems to be to protect local pharmaceuticals industry, which accounts for ten per cent of purchases by healthcare institutions.
Uzbekistan uses an older coding system for pharmaceuticals than its neighbours, so that imported items from Russia and Kazakstan, which trade between themselves as part of a common customs area, are automatically excluded.
The ban covers painkillers and sedatives used for chronic conditions, as well as other drugs.
A representative of the state pharmacy network Dori Darmon confirmed that drugs had to be licensed under the Uzbek standards system before they could go on sale, and acknowledged that many forms of medication for severe illnesses were left off the approved list.
In early December, the state-run media announced that the customs service had halted imports of 370,000 US dollars-worth of smuggled pharmaceuticals this year. It is unclear how many of these were small amounts for personal use, and how many were consignments destined for the market.
A local pharmacist said many retailers bribed customs officers to let commercial supplies through, although this drove up prices and carried the risk that fake substances would get through.
"The market is paradoxical," he said. "On the one hand, the authorities are exercising tight controls to ensure no unlicensed medicines go on sale – yet more and more fake drugs are turning up."
This article was produced as part of News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.
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