Shipments of drugs and medicines, much of it donated by multinational pharmaceutical companies - who were able to write off their gifts against tax - contained tubes of Chapstick lip salve, Preparation H haemorrhoid ointment and anti-smoking packs rather than syringes, antibiotics, and other essential drug supplies.
One consignment from an American medical charity contained huge amounts of cough syrup and a children's fruit- flavoured drink for alleviating sinus pain.
The WHO is so alarmed by the scale of the waste and the inappropriate nature of so much of the material that it is taking the unusual step of publishing an audit of what was donated for the benefit of the refugees. It hopes to alert governments and the general public to the problems of disposing of inappropriate medical aid.
The WHO wants to dismiss the belief, said to be particularly prevalent among American donors, that all aid is welcome. "There is a mistaken idea that anything will help in a crisis situation," said Franklin Apfel at the agency's European regional office in Copenhagen.
Doctors and nurses working on the Kosovo borders, where hundreds of thousands of refugees were given shelter, found that many of the drug items donated were either close to or past their expiry dates, so they had to be dumped. Medicines that were needed, such as insulin, arrived in such minute quantities as to be of little or no help. "Large volumes of supplies did not relate to any medical priority," Mr Apfel said.
Other drugs were either unpackaged or contained no instructions for use, so they could not be easily distributed. Ideally, multinationals would donate money so that medical charities such as Medicins sans Frontieres could order the supplies and equipment needed rather than accept the cleared-out contents of companies' warehouses.
One of the biggest issues arising from the problem is that unusable drugs constitute chemical waste and safe disposal is giving authorities in the beneficiary countries a severe headache. As Kosovo's refugees return home, the problem is expected to be enormous for Macedonia and Albania.
"It is most unfortunate," said Valery Abramov at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, "but we see this problem again and again. It took years to get rid of much of the aid sent after the Armenian earthquake because the country simply did not have the incinerators required to deal with the drugs."Reuse content