Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Expiry of medicines in supply outlets in Uganda

Josephine Katabaazi Nakyanzi a, Freddy Eric Kitutu a, Hussein Oria a & Pakoyo Fadhiru Kamba a

a. Department of Pharmacy, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda.

Correspondence to Pakoyo Fadhiru Kamba (e-mail: kambaf2000@yahoo.com).

(Submitted: 03 August 2008 – Revised version received: 08 February 2009 – Accepted: 17 February 2009.)

Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2010;88:154-158. doi: 10.2471/BLT.08.057471


In developing countries, where budgets for medicines are often tight, the supply cycle needs to be well-managed to prevent all types of wastage, including pilferage, misuse and expiry. This wastage reduces the quantity of medicines available to patients and therefore the quality of health care they receive. At least US$550 000 worth of antiretrovirals and 10 million antimalarial doses recently expired in Uganda’s National Medical Stores (NMS).1,2

The Ugandan pharmaceutical supply system comprises three non-profit wholesalers (one government medical store and two private non-profit ventures) and several private for-profit wholesale pharmacies that supply medicines in bulk to retail units (private retail pharmacies, hospital pharmacies and drug shops). Drug shops are the smallest retail medicine outlets, are supervised by non-pharmacist health-care professionals, and are limited to handling small amounts of over-the-counter medicines.3

The expiry of medicines highlights a problem with the supply chain, which includes medicine selection, quantification, procurement, storage, distribution and use.46 We need to find out the factors contributing to expiry at each stage of the supply cycle in order to design pragmatic strategies to reduce the problem. The main aim of this study was to find out whether medicine expiry extends beyond public medicine outlets to the private for-profit sector, to assess the factors that contribute to or cause expiry and find out which medicines are particularly prone to expiry in the supply chain in Uganda.

Local setting and methods

A cross-sectional survey of medicine outlets within Kampala city and Entebbe municipality was used to investigate the extent of expiry of medicines and the contributing factors in Uganda. This study area contains about 70% of all pharmaceutical businesses in Uganda including 19 public outlets (three non-profit wholesalers and 16 hospital pharmacies), 123 private wholesale pharmacies and 173 retail pharmacies.7 We aimed to sample 60 medicine outlets, a figure determined using the Leslie Kish formula based on a margin of error of 10% and expiry rate of 21% of medicines.8 Non-profit wholesalers were universally sampled, with the remaining complement proportionately stratified into three hospital pharmacies, 22 private wholesales and 32 retail pharmacies. Hospital pharmacies were selected based on acceptance to participate in the study while private pharmacies were randomly chosen. We only investigated large medicine outlets (non-profit wholesalers and private wholesale pharmacies) and medium-sized outlets (retail and hospital pharmacies) and excluded drug shops because of the small range and amounts of medicines they are allowed to stock under Uganda’s National Drug Policy. Only 38 outlets including six public outlets (one governmental store, two nongovernmental non-profit wholesalers and three hospital pharmacies) and 32 private pharmacies (nine wholesale, 23 retail) consented, equivalent to a 63.3% response rate.

We developed semi-structured questionnaires, which were then administered by an interviewer to a respondent who was familiar with each outlet’s medicine supply system (predominantly pharmacists, supplies/stores officers and managers). Closed questions on expiry-related actions (medicine disposal, return by customers, exchange with supplier and price reduction/donation), and an expansion of the World Health Organization’s list of medicines recommended for assessing level II pharmaceutical indicators (antiretrovirals and some slow-moving but vital medicines added)8,9 were used to assess the incidence of expiry of medicines. We also included closed questions on the characteristics of medicines that commonly expire as this may help to develop solutions for selection and inventory management. These questions included aspects on medicine shelf life, cost, taste, donations, those that treat rare diseases, and medicines affected by changes in treatment policy. Weaknesses in medicine quantification, procurement and use were probed by 13 closed questions and those in inventory management by nine closed and two open-ended questions on personnel understanding of the two stock flow approaches of FIFO (first in first out) and FEFO (first expiry first out). The questionnaire was critiqued by three pharmacists with expertise and experience in research at Makerere University, and revised accordingly before field work. Questionnaires were administered by three of the authors and a research assistant. All data were entered into the Statistical Package for Social Sciences version 10.0 (SPSS Inc., Chicago, IL, United States of America) and Microsoft Excel 2007 (Microsoft Corporation, Redmond, WA, USA) and analysed using descriptive statistics. The study proposal was reviewed and approved by the Pharmacy Department Research/Examinations Committee at Makerere University. All investigations were limited to events in the year preceding date of interview.

Expiry remains neglected

Expiry of medicines in the supply chain is a serious threat to the already constrained access to medicines in developing countries. In Uganda, volumes of valuable medicines have expired at the National Medical Stores, in district and hospital stores,1,2,10 and the problem has also been reported in Botswana, India and the United Republic of Tanzania.11,12 Through asking questions on expiry-related actions to explore the scope of the problem, we found that in five public outlets, four had disposed of (destroyed) medicines, two had exchanged medicines with their supplier, customers returned medicines in one outlet and all had received medicines at reduced prices or as donations in the previous year, due to actual or projected expiry. Similarly, of 32 private pharmacies, 18 had disposed of medicines, 14 had exchanged medicines with the supplier, customers had returned medicines in nine outlets and 24 had received medicines at reduced prices or as donations. Expiry of medicines therefore appears to be a universal problem in all medicine supply outlets.

Contributing factors

Expiry of medicines in supply facilities was common among medicines for vertical health programmes (with percentage of outlets reporting expiry) including vitamin A capsules, antiretroviral medicines, antituberculosis agents, chloroquine, sulfadoxine/pyrimethamine and nystatin tablets, though expiry of medicines such as anticancer agents, tetracycline eye ointment and mebendazole was also common. Note that the number of respondents varied because not all medicines are stocked by all units. Surprisingly, all these top-expiring medicines are either essential (with a high turnover because they are used by the majority of the population) or vital (without them, the patient would die).3 A possible explanation for the expiry of anticancer drugs is slow turnover because they treat rare diseases and are expensive. Similarly, tetracycline eye ointment and mebendazole have plenty of better substitutes, which may explain their slow turnover. We corroborated some of these findings with the respondents’ perceived features of medicines that commonly expire in their stores (Fig. 1). Poor management of a change in treatment policy was implicated in the expiry of huge stocks of chloroquine, sulfadoxine/pyrimethamine and isoniazid.2

Fig. 1. Perceived characteristics of medicines that expire
Fig. 1. Perceived characteristics of medicines that expire

On probing for contributing factors in the supply chain, the main ones included neglect of stock monitoring, lack of knowledge of basic expiry prevention tools, nonparticipation of clinicians in medicine quantification in hospitals, profit- and incentive-biased quantification, third party procurement by vertical programmes and overstocking. A few less common contributing factors were also reported (Table 1).

Prevention of expiry

Poor coordination appears to be responsible for some expiry incidents. For example, expiry due to treatment policy change and duplicate procurement can be prevented by sound coordination between key stakeholders. Even though a medicine procurement and supply management task force was set up by Uganda’s Ministry of Health to plan the phasing out of chloroquine and sulfadoxine/pyrimethamine,13 the expiry of large stocks of the latter suggests a serious lapse in coordination. Countries undertaking similar ventures should involve their national medicine regulatory agencies at all stages of the transition process to guide local production and to curtail entry of phased-out medicines into the market well before implementation of the change. Furthermore, rigorous coordination between suppliers and their clients is critical to the success of the “pull” system of supply of medicines used by Uganda’s National Medical Stores,2,13 as it ensures that the supplier’s forecasted turnover keeps in harmony with the consumption of its clients. Similarly, better coordination between government projects or vertical programmes and public medical stores can ameliorate the problem of overstocking associated with duplicate procurement, as well as harmonize medicine quantification with prescribing habits and preferences of consumers to ensure procurement matches turnover. This can be achieved with the involvement of prescribers in determining the scope and quantities of supplies, and the use of surveys of consumer tastes and preferences to determine suitable dosage forms for example.

Medicines with slow and unpredictable turnover are generally prone to expiry. The standard approach of ordering economic quantities to optimize stock levels only works for medicines with stable consumption and is inappropriate for those with erratic demand. Rigorous vigilance in inventory management and maintenance of minimum stock levels is the best approach to reduce expiry of these medicines. Although robust international guidelines for donation of medicines have been in existence since 1996,14 national medicine regulatory authorities need to take control and enforce them in their own country.

Pharmaco-economists favour bulk purchasing for economies of scale,11 but this can lead to overstocking and thus exacerbate expiry. This can however be mitigated by appropriate procurement phasing, lean supply15 and stock rotation.4 A lean supply policy would specifically prevent expiry of items with a short shelf-life, though its effectiveness requires a robust logistics management information system.

Rigorous statistical analysis of strata was limited by our sample size. Nevertheless, comparable sample sizes have been used previously.9 Our findings (Box 1) and those of others1012 reveal that expiry of medicines is a systemic barrier to access to medicines. We call for increased pharmacovigilance and surveillance of national pharmaceutical supply systems, as well as further research. ■

Box 1. Lessons learned

  • Public medicine wholesalers need strong coordination with their clients and with vertical programmes for effective procurement.
  • National medicine regulatory authorities should enforce existing international guidelines to prevent dumping of donated medicine.
  • Medicine selection and quantification should be matched with consumer tastes and prescribing habits. Lean supply and stock rotation should be considered.


We thank Mary Nantale and Geraldine Bwete, former secretaries of the Pharmacy Department at Makerere University, and our research assistant Thomas Okello for administering some of the questionnaires.

Funding: This study received some financial support from the Uganda National Drug Authority.

Competing interests: None declared.