The lure of fake pharmaceuticals
Mariama Kandeh
Published: 21-JUN-07

When Mariama Sesay accompanied her pregnant friend to the hospital in Freetown recently the last thing on her mind was the fee. By the country’s law, Sesay’s friend needed not pay for treatment.

Pregnant women are included in a long list of Sierra Leoneans exempted from paying hospital charges. Others include the destitute and children. But Sesay’s friend was forced to pay for drugs. Her experience is however not a peculiar one. Workers in government hospitals are forcing many exempted Sierra Leoneans to pay for drugs and treatment, a fact that has pushed many into buying drugs at lesser prices from fake druggists.

A steady increase in the number of fake drugs in circulation in the country is one of the biggest headaches of authorities in Sierra Leone. They say an increase in the growth of fake and unregistered drugs is further compounding the country’s precarious health system.

According to the country’s Director of Drugs and Medical Supplies, Dr. Bassey Turay, importers of fake and unregistered drugs are impairing government’s efforts to improve the country’s health indicators. Ruray, who addressed journalists at the Ministry of Health and Sanitation’s office recently, also said that most of the drugs are from China and they are largely circulated by Chinese peddlers whose number in the countryside has increased.

Experts have said that the heightened fake drug incidence in the country may further deepen the problems of its health sector. According to a recent Medien San Frontiere (MSF) report on health, most children in Sierra Leone die before the age of five and these deaths are largely due to malaria and other curable diseases. The MSF report also states that about 70 percent of sick people in the provinces of Sierra Leone do not go to hospitals but rely on quacks and herbal remedies.

As with most developing countries, Sierra Leone’s laws against counterfeiting are not strongly enforced. Dr. Turay says this is because of a lack of synergy among government agencies. “The effort of the Ministry in clamping down on the Chinese, who sell fake drugs, is being frustrated by other departments. Our people are also not helping the Ministry. Several times my team and the police have tried to arrest these Chinese peddlers but by the time we reach the point they would have (been informed and they would have) escaped,” he says. However, the Chairman of the Coalition of Civil Society and Human Rights Organisations, Charles Mambu, says government health officials know how to stem the flow of counterfeit drugs but are not doing enough. “The pharmacy board will not tell me that they are unaware of this incident, they are aware but they have turned a blind eye,” Mambu says.

But Dr. Alfred Kandeh, the head of the country’s National Public Procurement Authority, says that the country’s recent civil war weakened all civil and regulatory structures and makes it difficult for several government institutions to perform their duties. Experts say the quickest way for the country’s authorities to solve the problem of counterfeiting is to put in place the right political will and projects that will ensure that ordinary Sierra Leoneans have affordable access to quality drugs. Already, the European Union has given a grant of $3mn to the Ministry of Health and Sanitation for the storage handling, distribution of medicine, construction of modern warehousing and quality laboratory. The plan is to build a medical store in all of the country’s districts. Planners hope that once these hospitals are built and supplied with drugs, the people will see less need to buy drugs from itinerant Chinese traders. -Business in Africa Online

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