The piteous sight of distressed refugee families in camps across the world has moved many healthcare professionals to offer their assistance.

Doctors and nurses have unique skills to offer to those in need of medical attention, as well as access to resources that would be invaluable in refugee camps. Many of those considering offering their services have posted queries and suggestions on forums and social media, some of which we answer here.

Date-expired drugs

One apparently reasonable query is whether it would be appropriate to donate drugs which are past their expiry date. After all, why destroy valuable drugs when they could potentially help save lives in refugee camps? While this suggestion appears to be a pragmatic way to avoid waste and help those in need, it is not something that would be encouraged.

If the quality of the item is unacceptable in the donor country, it is also unacceptable as a donation.

The World Health Organization (WHO) addressed this issue in its 2011 publication Guidelines for medicine donations. One of the core principles set out in this document is the need to avoid double standards in quality, so 'if the quality of the item is unacceptable in the donor country, it is also unacceptable as a donation'.

While the WHO guidance is not intended to be an international regulatory framework it does highlight the need for best donation practice and the reasons for this, many of which apply even when medications are still in date.

If expired drugs were to be sent to a refugee camp, they may end up being destroyed anyway, often at the cost of the government of the recipient country, which would add further to their financial burden. There are also possible repercussions connected to the transport, storage, distribution and safety management of donated drugs, whether in date or not.

While the wish to make donations undoubtedly arises from the very best intentions, it is important to appreciate that not everything is useful for those in developing countries or refugee camps.