How Can Ship Master Deal With Unprescribed Drugs On Ships?

At home we feel so secure; a little cough, couple of sneezes, minor scratches and we run to the nearest doctor available. We have this luxury of medical help at home. But, what if you are a seaman joining a cargo vessel?

The very thought of our proceeding to sea sets our loved ones hallucinating with all types of thoughts. Our assurances are not enough because they know we do not have a doctor at sea. Like it or not, part of their baggages is already loaded with medical supplies and drugs.

Indeed it’s a ship master’s nightmare when such crew joins his ship with undeclared medical supplies and the ship is proceeding to ports and countries where medicines and unprescribed drugs even in the minutest quantities can put him through great trouble.

Unprescribed Drugs
Image for representation purpose only. Photo by rojoimages

What could be the reason for the crew to carry personal medicines on board?

Before we discuss the real problem let us first understand how the medical administration works on board.

Every seafarer who joins a ship knows that each ship has a well-stocked medical locker for eventualities on board, along with a designated officer, mainly 2nd officer, who looks after these supplies and administers them under the supervision of the master.

Some medicines which come under the category of drugs, in medical terms, are stored in a poison locker either in the medicine chest or in a ship master’s safe. The medical chest needs to be kept stocked up at all times and the medical officer maintains a medical register and narcotics register and accounts for each medicine administered on board.  There is a ship captain’s medical guide that guides the Ship Master and his subordinates through several common ailments. The medicines on board should be as per WHO Scales.

ship medicine chest
Example of Ship Medicine Chest
Image credits: threelittlebirds.org

So if we have everything on board to take care of all illnesses, is there really a need for a seaman to carry his own stock of medicines? Actually speaking, No!

The medical pharmacy has grown leaps and bounds and a range of medicines have hit the market. Some of these medicines like antibiotics are broad-spectrum and can take care of a large number of infections. Compared to these we are still stocking on ships the WHO scales of age-old medicines such as Tetracycline, Erythromycin, Penicillin etc. all based on certain chemicals used for the past several decades without any up-gradations  The ship officer will always subscribe to medicines as per WHO scales and in contrast the seaman on board carries the latest drugs and supplies advised to them by his or her family physician.

Apart from the fact that each seafarer carries a medical report of fitness, there is always a chance that he/she may be suffering from some undisclosed illness that was not covered by the limited medical examination tests ashore. Today multiple diagnostic labs have mushroomed all over the country carrying out a comprehensive medical test of the entire body systems for as little as Rs.3000 in India (Approx. $55). The amount is not high considering that a shipping company is sending seamen on ships for 8-10 months of onboard service. This is where quantity compromises the quality and services of ordinary MBBS doctors, with marine clinics and shady underhand dealings with shipping agencies, conduct these medical tests for even a 1/3 rd of these costs.

The results are thus disastrous for a shipping owner when unprescribed drugs or undisclosed illnesses affecting sick seamen cause huge financial losses, loss of reputation etc. if a ship deviates for accidental hospitalization to a port of refuge.

The solution to the problem of unprescribed drugs on ships is not too far. The Ship manager, the Master and the Ship Owner have to liaise with each other to root out this problem altogether. A healthy crew means a healthy ship and a fat balance sheet for the shipowner and at times a good bonus for the entire ship team in return for a good performance on board.

Following steps, if taken can help take care of the problems of unprescribed drugs on ships to a large extent.

  1. Conduct executive health checks on seamen and spend more money on physical examination than spend the same (or more) at a later date when he is already on board
  2. Discard all MBBS clinics and engage reputed diagnostic clinics that have a chain pan respective country
  3. Upgrade WHO scales to include the latest pharmaceutical drugs
  4. Conduct pre-joining briefing for Master and Ship’s medical officer, training them on the repercussions of carrying undisclosed medicines/unprescribed drugs and updating them on the up-gradation of fresh medical supplies
  5. Check the personal baggage of each crew when he joins the vessel before he proceeds to his cabin. All undeclared and unprescribed drugs on ships should be confiscated by the master and reported to the ship manager
  6. Destroy all expired medicines and drugs on board with proper photographs and make log entries of the same
  7. Maintain medical and narcotics register truthfully to avoid trouble with port authorities
  8. Before arriving at each port, properly check the full inventory of all medicines on board including those received in the last port and if any personal medicines of the crew were kept in the bonded locker, they should be declared

I would like to narrate a small incident which happened on an oil major’s ship in a Russian port.

The chief officer was the ship’s medical officer and received narcotics and medicines on his last port visit and directed the cadet to check them and store them in the medical locker. The cadet was hauled for another job soon thereafter and he conveniently forgot. The medicine cartons lied in the hospital unopened and when the Russian customs checked the declared inventory they found the excess undeclared stock on board, in the unopened cartons in the hospital and charged the master and chief officer with possession of narcotic drugs and placed them under house arrest for several days .Their company had to pay eventually a very heavy fine to bail them out.

This can happen to you. Be careful when it comes to unprescribed drugs on ships

Have you faced trouble because of unprescribed drugs on ships? Let us know in the comments below.

Note: The author’s views are entirely his or her own and may not reflect the views of Marine Insight.

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One Comment

  1. how about those food supplements and multivitamins which we purchased while ashore? do we need to declare those and or hide those pills before entering port?or is it safe to carry those pills on board?

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