During conflicts and natural disasters large quantities of pharmaceuticals are often donated as part of humanitarian assistance. Undoubtedly many of the pharmaceuticals save lives and alleviate suffering, but some donations given by well-meaning but uninformed people may cause problems. Pharmaceuticals may arrive past or near their expiry date, may be inappropriate for the needs, be unrecognizable because they are labelled in a foreign language or may have been sent in unwanted quantities. Donated pharmaceuticals with a long shelf-life may be mismanaged, particularly in the confusion during and after armed conflict or a natural disaster. Staff and storage space may be lacking and the pharmaceutical management system in disarray. Such problems also occur when drug donations form part of development assistance. Smaller quantities of pharmaceutical waste may accumulate in the absence of emergency situations, due to inadequacies in stock management and distribution, and to lack of a routine system of disposal. Safe disposal of these unwanted or expired drugs often creates a major problem.
These disposal guidelines are based on a report on the safe disposal of unwanted and unusable drugs in Mostar, which had accumulated during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Quantifying pharmaceutical waste may be difficult. One report states that 50-60% of the 27,800-34,800 metric tons of medical supplies donated to Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and mid-1996 were considered to be inappropriate, and by mid-1996 there were an estimated 17,000 metric tons of unusable drugs stockpiled in warehouses and clinics throughout the country1. These dramatic figures are contested: something in the region of 1,000 metric tons is considered by some to be more reasonable. A recent figure of 2,000 metric tons of pharmaceutical waste in Croatia is regarded as accurate. Unusable donated drugs hindered the efficient operation of pharmacies in many of the states of the former Yugoslavia and represented a significant disposal problem.