Africa steps up fight against fake drugs

Africa has long been embroiled in a war against counterfeit drugs

In the mid-2000s, the late Professor Dora Akunyili, who at the time was the Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), waged a much-publicised war against the distribution and sale of counterfeit drugs in Nigeria. Nearly a decade and a half later, it would appear that the war is far from over. 

It is commonplace to see street hawkers and small-time retailers at various parts of the country’s major cities displaying all kinds of drugs with debatable quality. People buy these medicines, not knowing if they are still in good condition, or whether they are even fit for consumption, consequently putting their lives in danger.

In February 2017, Nigerian singer Eric Arubayi passed on after a brief illness at the age of 34. In an interview with the deceased’s brother conducted by Vanguard Newspaper, it was revealed that Mr. Arubayi had consumed expired drugs in a bid to treat malaria and typhoid. This triggered a liver condition, and led to his demise.

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The scourge of counterfeit medication is not peculiar to Nigeria. According to a report published by the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in 2019, fake malaria drugs were responsible for the deaths of 150,000 children yearly, and 10 per cent of medicines sold in developing countries were sub-standard. Another study conducted in 2019 by the JAMA Network Open Journal revealed that nearly 19 per cent of medicines distributed in sub-Saharan Africa were either fake or sub-standard. More damningly, the continent accounts for about 42 per cent of cases of fake or sub-standard medical products, according to the 2017 WHO Global Surveillance and Monitoring System for Substandard and Falsified Medical Products.

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This sad state of affairs is caused by a number of factors, some of which include: weak legislations, undetected channels of drug trafficking, widespread poverty as well as little access to quality health care, and a paucity in the number of available pharmacists to provide sufficient checkmates.

Governments in the region are aware of the ugly trend, and are taking steps to stem the tide. On January 18, 2020 seven heads of state, global public health partners and NGOs gathered in Lome, Togo signed an agreement known as the Lome Initiative, which is dedicated to collaboration in fighting against the trafficking of falsified medicines and other sub-standard medical products. The signing was witnessed by the heads of state of Togo, Uganda, Senegal, Ghana, Congo, Niger and the Gambia.

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The Lome Initiative will be followed by new legislation criminalising the trafficking and sale of fake medicines. The draft legislation is advancing a minimum 10-year jail term for those involved in the supply, sale and distribution of fake medical products. The new agreement is expected to reflect the political will of the heads of state who signed it, and other African countries are expected to catch on in due time.

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