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Depoliticising the war against fake drugs

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I WAS distressed by the reports in some newspapers on May 1, this year, that a group of youth in Benue State attacked, in protest, the Director General of National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, NAFDAC, Dr Paul Botwev Orhii and some officials of the agency at the destruction site for counterfeit medicines along the University of Agriculture, Makurdi, UAM, Gbajima Road, on the outskirts of Makurdi, the state capital.

But the agency had to swiftly react to the report, describing it as untrue.  The image maker of the agency, Alhaji Abubakar Jimoh, said no such thing happened-that Dr Orhii was not anywhere near the destruction site let alone attacked by the angry youth.  Subsequent checks had confirmed the agency’s position to be the correct version of the narratives in a section of the print media.

What was, indeed, correct about this other strange narrative was that a group of youths actually but uncommonly protested the location for the destruction of counterfeit medicines on grounds of the unsubstantiated claim that the emissions or smokes from it constitute a dangerous pollutant that could cause serious hazards to the health of the people living in and around the community.  Spokesperson for the youths, Francis Udoma, was quoted to have said that they would no longer allow toxic wastes to cause harm to the residents.  The question to ask is: Have they been victims of toxic waste before now and who was responsible?

Read Udoma’s claims: “The burning of expired drugs has contaminated the only source of water in the area, resulting in the death of live stock; it has also caused rashes and body itching among the residents.”  Was it the umpteenth time fake drugs would be burnt in Benue?  Whether his claims were founded or not is neither here nor there.  NAFDAC did not forcefully take over the site for destruction of fake drugs.  The Benue State Ministry of Environment, according to reports, carved out the destruction site after carrying out the necessary environmental impact assessment.

What the protest by the youth succeeded in doing was to delay the exercise for about two days as the drugs valued at over N400 million were eventually burnt in the full glare of the public.  With the burning of the drugs, the agency has succeeded in taking the destroyed quantity out of the system.  It can no longer find its way back into circulation.  Destruction of drugs worth over N600 million had similarly, in December, last year, taken place in Kano State where hundreds of cartons of counterfeit Chloroquine, banned Analgin injections and 14 million tablets of Tramoldine drugs often abused by commercial drivers and motorcyclists were affected.

There was no protest in Kano; or, anywhere else where indigenes of the community embarked on a protest to hamper the incremental progress being recorded through the burning of impounded fake medicines.  Burning of the seized caches of drugs serves to complement the other methods, especially the cutting-edge technologies such as Truscan equipment, Mobile Authentication Service and Black Eye that have been deployed by the agency to attack frontally the menace of fake medicines.

But beneath the protest in Benue, which incidentally is the home state of the agency’s DG, was an obvious political undertone- an attempt to politicize the campaign by the NAFDAC to rid the state of fake medicines. There were even reports that the youths, who protested, issued warnings and threats to Orhii to wait for his time to be governor of the state.  One must condemn the cheap resort to blackmail and politicisation of an issue as serious as waging a war against counterfeit drugs.

Although, Orhii, who is a thoroughbred technocrat, has not indicated his intention of going into politics, it is not surprising that some persons somewhere who perceive him as a potential threat to their ambitions in the event that he decides to throw his hat in the ring are already panicky.  It simply means that that they see some positives in the anti-counterfeit medicines campaign that he is driving at NAFDAC.

Should he now ride on the wave of the wonderful performance to build political machinery back home?  This is the issue those trying to politicize the anti-fake medicine campaign in Benue find difficult to relate with.  Rather than try to undercut his great effort at sanitising and controlling our drug and food market, the institution of NAFDAC, much more than Orhii, needs the genuine support of all Nigerians, including the political elite in Benue, to combat the menace of fake drugs that has unfortunately and painfully robbed us of loved ones over the years and will continue to do so if all hands are not on deck to fight back.

This collective will does not need to be bogged down on the altar of politics, ethnicity or tribalism as death occasioned by ingestion of fake medicines does not know politics, ethnic background or tribe.  Death through fake medicines diminishes mankind and reduces all of these primordial considerations six feet down the grave.  At least four persons were reported to have died in the state about the time of the “protest drama” over the site of fake drug destruction after they were administered with fake procaine penicillin and gentamycin injection.

Orhii, according to media reports, said the victims died in Gboko, Makurdi and Otukpo local government areas of Benue State.  His disclosure was at a one-day Consumer Awareness and Sensitization Forum held in Gboko.  He had urged Nigerians to stand up against the fakers of drugs in Nigeria, stressing that drug fakers were worse than armed robbers.  I agree completely.  Armed robbers will collect all you have at gun point without pulling the trigger and leave you to pick up your pieces; but drug fakers will take the money for purchase of the drugs and still kill as many as possible that are unlucky to ingest the drugs.

Responding to this challenge requires guts and passionate commitment to stand and be counted on the side of the movement of those who would spare nothing to make a huge success of the anti-fake medicine campaign.  It is cheering that successive leadership of NAFDAC has always provided the focus of attack against the sophistication and conscienceless courage of fakers of medicines as well as their importers and hawkers.

It is clear that the NAFDAC leadership understands how well to prosecute the campaign by attacking the menace in multi-dimensional ways.  One other way, apart from the use of cutting-edge technologies to which burning of impounded fake drugs is complementary, is the conscious effort to promote local production of drugs.  Research has shown that drugs that are faked are the imported drugs that are usually very expensive.

Orhii, according to media reports, had hinted that the Agency had approached the Federal Government for a N200 billion pharmaceutical intervention fund to help provide funds for pharmaceutical companies to aid the production of drugs locally.  His rationalisation is that when finally approved, the fund would be readily available and accessible to pharmaceutical companies in the country to aid the production of drugs and thereby discourage the importation of fake drugs.

There is no doubt that vast energies should be channeled into the anti-fake medicines war.  These energies must include appropriate and adequate funding.  Federal Government must prioritize the funding of NAFDAC and offer it a window to generate and increase funds internally through a regime of regulations of the drug and food industry.  It is obvious that government subvention, through yearly budgetary allocations, has proved incapable of strengthening the agency’s exertion.

The agency must be enabled, even if legally, for instance, to collect regulatory allowance or levy of five percent, as obtained in some developed countries, on such luxury items like tobacco products, energy drinks, alcoholic beverages which most people do not need.  I believe, as I have advocated before now, that the regulatory allowance will come in handy for NAFDAC.

Indeed, NAFDAC will have enough money to take care of its operations and will be able to give some back to the Federal Government to be budgeted for other agencies that do not have the capacity to raise or generate funds.  The overall idea is to get and/or generate adequate funds that will be deployed to strengthen the agency’s operations and the anti-counterfeit medicine war, far beyond unnecessary local politics.

Mr.  SUFUYAN OJEIFO, a journalist, wrote from Abuja.


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