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VATICAN LETTER May-23-2008 (810 words) Backgrounder. With photo. xxxi

World's busiest pharmacy? Vatican drugstore offers cut-rate prices

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- From a simple storeroom for the pope's pills to a bustling drugstore open to the public, the Vatican pharmacy has come a long way in 134 years.

The Vatican says the pharmacy is the busiest in the world; some 2,000 customers stream through its doors daily.

The booming business and crowded store led officials to recently expand and open a whole new wing dedicated to top-brand beauty-care products and sparkly glass bottles of perfume.

If it weren't for the large antique, hand-painted ceramic "arborelli," or medicinal urns, topping the cabinets and the portraits of Pope Benedict XVI and St. John of God, founder of the order that oversees the pharmacy, one would think this was just any old high-end drug and beauty store.

But many people -- about 45 percent of the daily clientele -- come to the Vatican pharmacy for foreign, hard-to-find medicines or to fill prescriptions at cut-rate prices. Savings can range from 12 percent to 25 percent less for the same products sold in Italian drugstores.

The Vatican came up with the idea of having its own pharmacist in 1874 when the secretary of state asked the St. John of God brother who headed the nearby Fatebenefratelli hospital pharmacy to be in charge of procuring and supplying medications for the pope and cardinals residing at the Vatican.

An in-house supplier was needed since a dispute with the Italian government over the sovereignty of the Holy See kept popes confined to Vatican City from 1870 to 1929. So Brother Eusebio Ludvig Fronmen opened up a tiny storeroom in a building inside Vatican City to keep medicines on hand for top curial officials.

In 1892 the religious order established a permanent office in the Vatican and also started offering medical and other health care services to the pope, cardinals and bishops residing at the Vatican.

The pharmacy changed to a locale at St. Anne's Gate, closer to the main entrance of Vatican City, in 1917. The pharmacy's current director, St. John of God Brother Joseph Kattackal, said the move was probably due to the pharmacy's already burgeoning popularity for being the only place to get medicines that were impossible to find elsewhere in the city.

When Italy and the Holy See normalized relations in 1929, the pharmacy finally was relocated to its current space in Palazzo Belvedere, right across from the Vatican supermarket and behind the Vatican's central post office.

Continuously run and staffed by the Brothers of the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God, the pharmacy began hiring lay pharmacists 30 years ago. Today it has 45 people on staff, Brother Kattackal said in a late-April interview with the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.

He said employees do not have to grapple with the conscientious objection issues that other Catholic pharmacists might face because the Vatican pharmacy does not stock or sell any product whose purpose is "contrary to life," such as contraceptives and abortifacients.

Customers can scan shelves along the back wall for over-the-counter products like sunscreen, bug spray, shampoos, fancy soaps, vitamins, herbal-tea remedies and baby food.

A large bowl on the checkout counter is piled high with generic buffered aspirin from the United States -- a big seller at the Vatican.

The savings are substantial: "In Italy, six tablets (of American buffered aspirin) cost about $4.50; at the Vatican 130 tablets (in a bottle) cost $8.00," Brother Kattackal said.

The brother told the paper that the most requested product is "Hamolind" -- a hard-to-find remedy for what he called "a very annoying ailment" otherwise known as hemorrhoids.

He said the pharmacy also sells "traditional products" and the brothers' home-brewed elixirs, such as anise liqueur; Cinchona Iron, a distillation made from quinine; a "very soft"-smelling cologne; and a cure for dandruff.

The Vatican pharmacy is one of the only places people can buy -- with a proper medical prescription -- obscure, foreign or just-released pharmaceuticals that haven't yet hit Italian drugstores.

Brother Kattackal said Italian bureaucracy can hold up approval for a drug's sale in Italy for months, or even years. But Vatican City State can purchase straight from international manufacturers drugs that have passed other nations' standards and approval, he said, without dealing with Italian red tape.

While the pharmacy is open to the public, non-Vatican employees must go through a special registry office when they enter Vatican City. There they must show a recent medical prescription and a valid ID to receive a temporary pass that allows them to head to the pharmacy.

The approximately 10,000 people who come under the Vatican's private health care plan already carry the necessary pass to enter the Vatican and its small strip mall of stores -- all duty free, since Vatican City imposes no taxes.


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