Medical supplies urgently needed in places like earthquake-stricken south-western Haiti are on protracted hold as clinics-in-a-box provider Medical Bridges struggles to find capacity for shipments to the 90 countries it serves.

The small US-based medical mission is representative of a substantial sector of charity initiatives that have found their thousands of containers per year held back by the same global logistics crisis that is facing profit-driven shippers. The delays cost lives.

"Students at Texas A&M University supplied one of their beautifully equipped clinics for Haiti, we put in equipment and tables and it was ready to ship four weeks after the August earthquake," said Walter Ulrich, chief executive officer of Houston area-based Medical Bridges. "We're still waiting for a slot."

Ulrich told TradeWinds his organisation is less troubled by sourcing the boxes than by actually getting them picked up and delivered to a vessel. Shipments are often cancelled with just hours' notice.

The results are deadly for hospital patients in the struggling regions Medical Bridges serves with its two main classes of products — donated medical supplies from Texas hospitals and prefabricated intermodal clinics supplied by its partner Texas A&M Build, a volunteer organisation at Texas A&M University.

Walter Ulrich, chief executive of Houston medical charity Medical Bridges, coordinates global donations of medical supplies from US hospitals. Photo: Medical Bridges

Besides coordinating supplies of donated medical goods, Medical Bridges vets and collaborates with non-governmental organisations in up to 90 countries to identify real needs and verify the actual delivery of supplies.

"The shipping problem compounds problems on the ground for these hospitals," Ulrich said.

"There are $1.5m of our donated medical goods not getting there now, about 100 pallets. We don't know how many people are dying because these pallets are arriving in 10 weeks instead of four weeks. But we learn about cases from our partners. The lack of one simple suction device cost a two-year-old in Haiti her life."

In normal times, Medical Bridges can expect to get a 40-ft container to its destination at a cost of $3,500 to $4,000 within four weeks. Now the same container takes as many as 10 weeks and costs $6,500 to $10,000 once it finds a slot.

The cost factor also affects volumes, as the Texas A&M students have had to cut back their deliveries of boxes not because of the cost of supplying them but shipping them. Labour and supplies can be volunteered, but not the freight. The students typically raise $20,000 to $25,000 per box to cover costs.

Ulrich said: "Some lines have been quoted as saying they're not going to raise their rates any further," he said, referring to rate caps by major lines in September. "That's like saying, I've been torturing you, and I'm going to keep torturing you, but I'm not going to torture you worse."

Sourcing the actual boxes for medical donation shipments and for clinic-in-a-box projects has not been so bad given close connections to companies based around the port of Houston.

"I'm just glad we're in Houston and not in Los Angeles," Ulrich said.

"We actually did pretty well last year despite Covid-19," he told TradeWinds. "There were problems but nothing we couldn't handle. We shipped 43 containers in 2020 and have shipped 27 so far this year out of a target of 53."