By Elias Biryabarema

KAMPALA (Reuters) – Public hospitals in Uganda have been hit by shortages of essential medicines and supplies needed for emergency care, a health workers’ association said, further hurting services at facilities already struggling from years of neglect.

The shortages are affecting the East African country’s main Mulago Hospital, which handles serious cases referred to it from other facilities, Uganda Medical Association (UMA) said.

Most patients in Uganda seek care at public health facilities although private hospitals whose services are beyond the reach of many are common.

UMA President Ekwaro Obuku, speaking to Reuters, said government hospitals were experiencing serious shortages of basic medicines for emergency care such as vaccines and other drugs, syringes, gloves, catheters, gauze and others.

“Mothers and their babies are at increased risk of death if something is not done urgently,” Obuku told Reuters.

At least one woman in labor who was referred to a public hospital has lost her baby as a result of the shortages, Obuku said.

Vivian Nakaliika Serwanjja, health ministry spokeswoman, said shortages had been caused by financial disruption at the government agency responsible for procurement of medical supplies.

“But the scarcities are not widespread,” she said, adding only a few hospitals were affected and supplies had started being delivered. She had no information on the alleged baby death caused by the shortages.

Doctors and other public health workers in Uganda routinely gripe about paltry salaries with demands for pay rises largely going unmet.

Critics of long-ruling President Yoweri Museveni say the chronically under-funded health sector is a victim of his luxury life-style in which he flies around in a private jet and travels in a motorcade stretching sometimes to dozens of cars.

Rampant graft also eats into key public services including healthcare.

At some government facilities in rural areas, roofs leak, windows panes are missing and a lot of equipment barely functions.

The country’s only radiotherapy machine broke down in early 2016. It took more than a year before a replacement was installed leaving mostly poor cancer patients untreated.

Rather than be tended to in poor medical facilities at home, top government officials often fly to India and South Africa for treatment.

(This version of the story corrects sixth para to say a woman lost her baby but is alive herself)

(Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Editing by George Obulutsa, Richard Balmforth)