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African presidents crack the whip on continent’s counterfeit drugs menace

September 30th, 2020
topic:Health and Sanitation
by:Bob Koigi
located in:Niger, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Senegal, Gambia, Togo, Republic of the Congo
tags:Africa, counterfeits, health care

Each year an estimated 116,000 people in Sub-Saharan Africa die as a result of substandard and fake anti-malaria drugs with the World Health Organisation indicating that out of all counterfeit medicines that were reported to the institution between 2013 and 2017, 42% of them were found in Africa.

The global trade estimated to be worth $200 billion annually affects up to 120 countries. The World Bank study further revealed that China and India were the key manufacturers. 

A 2015 study that was published in the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene approximated that over 122,000 children in Sub-Saharan Africa lost their lives every year as a result of counterfeit drugs

Drugs that are repackaged and sold past their expiry date, exchanged freely in the black market or manufactured through substandard conditions, have proliferated in African countries. Health experts have blamed this on weak legislation and lenient measures to deal with perpetrators, poor drug traceability mechanisms and the high cost of medication that has seen ordinary and poor citizens opt for cheaper alternatives. 

In a case that shocked the world in 2009, Nigerian authorities reported that over 80 children had died after taking a teething syrup that had been laced with a chemical mostly used in engine coolant and which triggers kidney failure. 

An operation in 2016 by the World Customs Organisation nabbed tens of millions of counterfeit drugs in 16 African ports with 35 percent of them destined for Nigeria. The following year, Interpol intercepted 420 tonnes of fake medicinal products in seven African countries. The burgeoning black market for pharmaceuticals saw the World Health Organisation sound the alarm over counterfeit meningitis vaccines in Niger and fake hypertension drugs in Cameroon in 2019. In the same year in Kenya and Uganda, substandard tablets of the Augmentin antibiotic were found to have flooded the market. 

As this proliferation continues unabated, authorities appear helpless. In some instances, they have even been accused of colluding with the masterminds of the well-oiled syndicates that have now made drugs the most lucrative and counterfeited consumer good globally. 

Health remains one of the most crucial yet hugely neglected and underfunded sectors in most African countries. The impacts of this lack of investment are far-reaching occasioning brain drain and the continent being one of the most expensive for patients seeking medicare with the bulk of its population unable to access even basic healthcare. This has fanned the unprecedented trade in counterfeits that have not only bled the sector but triggered ripple effects across multiple sectors and crippled economies,” said Dr. Harrison Mueke from Kenya’s Maseno University School of Medicine. 

Alive to the mounting catastrophe that is threatening to spiral out of control, African leaders have decided to do something about it. In a first of its kind declaration, presidents of seven African countries, Ghana, Uganda, Senegal, Gambia, Togo, Niger and the Republic of Congo, met early this year in Togo’s capital to chart a new, unified and multifaceted approach to tackling the scourge of fake drugs once and for all. 

Christened The Lome Initiative, the political declaration, intends to classify trade in counterfeit pharmaceuticals a serious crime punishable with the most stringent laws while bolstering enforcement and coordination across nations to stem further spread of a business now blamed for funding terrorism and criminal gangs operations.  

“This is the first phase of a wider programme to ensure access to safe and effective medicines for all their citizens. It will help to combat a deadly trade that claims hundreds of thousands of lives every year in Africa and funds transnational crime and terrorism. This lucrative traffic threatens regional security as it yields huge profits for organised criminal groups,” read a statement by Brazzaville Foundation, the organisation that coordinated the event. 

“The Lomé Initiative will result in new criminal legislation interdicting this traffic, imposing tough penalties and strengthening capacities for rigorous enforcement, in adherence with relevant international agreements,” the statement further read. 

As signatory nations move to actualise the ambitious commitments and the historic framework seeks to enlist the support of more African countries, members are aware that implementation of the agreement will not be an event but a process that calls for a broader and detailed plan beyond legislation. 

“We are talking of a very complex situation that requires governments to address the root causes of the thriving black market in drugs from poor healthcare infrastructure, corruption, investment in information sharing and embracing technology to reverse the sorry state of affairs. Political will must guide the entire process which also requires the support of the private sector and the public who are the biggest casualties of the illicit trade,” said Dr. Mueke.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Niger Nigeria Kenya Uganda Senegal Gambia Togo Republic of the Congo
The World Bank study further revealed that China and India were the key manufacturers.
Drugs that are repackaged and sold past their expiry date.
Nigerian authorities reported that over 80 children had died after taking a teething syrup.