Return of fake drugs menace
A LOT of fake products abound in the Nigerian markets. Fake cosmetics, fake electrical appliances, fake canned food, fake spare parts, fake drugs, fake designer shoes and clothing- the list is literally endless.
There is just about a fake of everything you can think of. However, with fake drugs, the effect can be so far-reaching because it is a matter of life and death.
The simplest scenario depicting this was a sad event which occurred in 1995.
An asthmatic purchased a fake inhaler and when she had one of the attacks that she was by now used to, she simply reached for the inhaler she carried everywhere with her. It was no use.
She boarded a bike to the nearest hospital for medical assistance. She passed out on the steps of the hospital and never regained consciousness.
A fake drug and not the asthma was her waterloo. Her children were rendered motherless, her husband made a widower; her parents lost a child and her siblings lost a sister. Heart breaking. Like her, many have died from the scourge of fake drugs in this country.
Enter Prof. Dora Akunyili who is best remembered for her work in the National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC).
The agency came into the consciousness of Nigerians when she took over the helm of affairs. With some co-operation, the quantity of fake drugs in the Nigerian market was reduced drastically.
In an interview she granted to the World Health Organization (WHO) as reported by the WHO bulletin, the late Akunyili said that before she assumed office in 2001, fake drugs were openly circulating in the country. Her efforts led to increased public awareness about counterfeit drugs and tougher surveillance by the Nigerian customs.
At the height of her battle, fake drugs worth about N2 billion (US $16 million) were voluntarily handed over by counterfeiters or seized after tip-offs from the public. What is happening now?
The truth is that there is a resurgence of fake drugs. Why? Is it that the importers and manufacturers of counterfeit drugs have found new ways of beating the mechanisms put in place to crack down on the illegal trade? Or has the corruption, which Akunyili said had been the bane of NAFDAC returned? It was reported that before Akunyili took over, staff abused their position to extort money from honest manufacturers and at the same time taking bribes from counterfeiters in return for access to the Nigerian drug market.
Has the surveillance at the sea and airports been relaxed? Do the inspections which led to the surrender of fake drugs, arrest of counterfeiters and shopkeepers still take place? What about the legislation that should support efforts which are already in place? On the other hand, is it a combination of all these factors?
Nothing can be quite as disheartening to agents as risking their lives to gather information, arresting culprits and in no distant time, see them walk free and in some cases, have enough information to threaten their lives. No worse morale killer.
The penalty for fake drug producer or importer ranges from paltry fines to between three months to five years imprisonment.
That is preposterous for the billions they make, the hardships suffered and the lives lost. It was good news to read in the papers recently that an importer of fake drugs was apprehended.
A big fish going by the worth of seized goods of about a billion naira or more. However, how will the story end? With such a big catch, his links and collaborators can be brought in. The truth is that the fake drug business is worth billions of U.S. dollars and is a powerful international cartel.
Unfortunately, Nigeria, in fact, many countries in Africa, are where they are able to do their dirty business (in collusion with people of that country) and get away with it. It is clear that counterfeit drugs are more of our problem than it can ever be for any western nation. This is a battle we must fight ourselves.
NAFDAC and other agencies cannot do it alone without the necessary backing and political will. Appropriate legislation should be put in place if we really understand that our very lives are at stake. No one is immune. Relatively, mild ailments are no longer easy to treat. The experiences of physicians around me tell a whole lot.
Personally, I have experienced fake drugs. In the past few months, for a relatively healthy individual, I have had quite a few experiences with counterfeit drugs that I am left pondering- if I have had as much exposure, how about those who are sick and literally depend on drugs to survive? My latest experience was with my five-year old who, I recently noticed, had scalp ringworm (tinea capitis).
This is a fungal infection which is more common in children. I bought the anti-fungal cream of choice and started treatment but alas, the hairless patch continued to spread to my mortification. I began to wonder if the drug was a fertilizer for the fungus! I was at a loss because this drug made by a manufacturer in Belgium was one of the best available in the Nigerian market.
The following day while cleaning out a drawer, I saw a half used tube of the same cream by the same manufacturer. I started using it right away and in a short while, the difference was clear. Another example: A friend of mine narrated her experience.
She bought, for use in her private part, tablets to treat thrush (candidiasis) which is rather common in women. She applied the tablet at bedtime.
She started to feel an unusual burning sensation. She brushed aside her uneasiness and went to sleep.
In the morning, about 6 a.m., she went to the convenience to ease herself. She heard a loud plunk in the water cistern. She looked in; behold, it was the undissolved tablet which she had used eight hours earlier!
Antibiotics don’t work-cocktail if they are used to treat patients thereby encouraging antibiotic resistance; wounds and ulcers remain unhealed, compounding the misery of sick, suffering Nigerians while draining their pockets of scarce resources.
Efforts of health care providers are frustrated, making a mockery of diagnostic support. Are all these just to make some unscrupulous individuals mega rich? How and when will this end? Who will deliver us?
• Dr. Chukwuanukwu is a lecturer at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka.