Skopje protests erupt over cancer drug scandal

Skopje protests erupt over cancer drug scandal
The scandal at the Mother Teresa clinic has cast a dark shadow over North Macedonia's healthcare system. / Protest against murders in Oncology via Facebook
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje September 4, 2023

Protests erupted in North Macedonia's capital on September 4 over allegations that a sophisticated criminal network at the Oncology Clinic of the University Clinical Center in Skopje diverted cancer drugs to the black market. 

The scandal at the Mother Teresa clinic has cast a dark shadow over North Macedonia's healthcare system. Protesters say patients in critical condition waited for months for vital medicines, which instead were sold on the black market, some of them ending up in neighbouring Kosovo. There are also allegations that hospital staff administered diluted cytostatics, drugs used to block the growth of cancer cells, to the clinic’s patients. 

In response, the Public Prosecutor's Office and interior ministry have initiated investigations, prompted by reports from the weekly publication Fokus, which exposed a criminal network operating within the clinic, purportedly engaged in the illicit resale of costly therapies.

The network is accused of introducing fictitious patients into the system, while some legitimate patients allegedly received therapy diluted with saline solution instead of the prescribed treatment. Expensive cytostatics are believed to have been diverted to the black market, with Kosovo reported as one of the destinations.

The protesters allege that this situation is the result of organised crime, implicating high-ranking government officials and spanning several years.

Amidst resounding calls of “resignations", "thieves" and “murderers", the protest started at 6 pm in front of the government building.

Some of the protesters carried a large banner that read "Murderers for profit". Protesters also pelted the building with eggs and left symbolic "bloody" handprints outside the government and Prosecutor's Office buildings in downtown Skopje.

The protest organisers are demanding accountability from all those involved in the scandal.

Based on a court order, authorities conducted searches at the Oncology Clinic and two private apartments on September 1, when they seized computers, computer data and other documentation for analysis and evaluation.

Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski assured the public that those who violated the law would face consequences, but he spoke out against indiscriminately targeting all healthcare workers.

President Stevo Penderovski expressed similar concerns about the healthcare system's integrity.

"The health system has clearly failed in its duty to offer comprehensive support and protection to individuals grappling with the most challenging diagnoses. This failure has eroded trust, not only among those currently ill but has also cast doubt on the quality of care for all future patients," Pendarovski said.

The opposition VMRO-DPMNE party called on Kovacevski to take responsibility for the situation, emphasising that the healthcare system has suffered a clear failure.

Health Minister Fatmir Mexhiti voiced concern regarding the Oncology Clinic scandal and called upon the appropriate authorities to swiftly reveal the individuals accountable. He emphasised that he does not hold himself responsible for the events at the Oncology Clinic but rather attributes responsibility to the former heads of the ministry and the clinic.

Violeta Klisarovska, who has been serving as the acting director of the Oncology Clinic since November of last year, spoke of her dedication to ensuring that all patients receive their prescribed therapies without any misuse or manipulation.

The September 4 protest was organised through a social media call, and a subsequent demonstration has been scheduled for September 11.