As the prices of drugs continue to soar, many Nigerians are opting for cheaper traditional herbal concoctions to meet their healthcare needs without caring so much about the possible negative implications.
Alluding to this trend, the federal government recently stated that 81.6 percent of the country’s population of over 200 million, up from 70 percent in 2018, were relying on traditional medicine as their primary form of healthcare.
The devaluation of the naira and exits of two pharmaceutical manufacturers including GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a UK-based pharmaceutical company, has pushed up the prices of several essential drugs in recent months and put them out of reach for many citizen, particularly low-income earners who are already squeezed by the growing high inflation and poverty in the country.
For example, the price of Actifed Action tablet skyrocketed from N4,000 before the exit of GSK to N13,000, and that of GSK Ampiclox jumped from N900 to N15,000. In addition, the price of Voltaren pain relief cream rose from below N5,000 to N12,000; Ventolin inhaler, from N3,000 to N15,000; Augmentin 1g tablet, from N4,000 to N43,000; and Avamys nasal spray, from N4,000 to N21 000.
The surge in drug prices is driving the growing demand for traditional herbal medicines, which are preferred due to their affordability and perceived effectiveness.
Traditional medicine vendors are in many strategic locations such as motor parks and markets with herbs promising cures for various forms of illnesses at affordable rates.
Haruna Abu, a regular customer of a local medicine hawker in the Wuse 11 area of Abuja, said he prefers herbal drugs because they are affordable and effective.
“Instead of buying drugs for up to N2,000 or N5,000, one bottle of this mixture costing N200 will keep me healthy,” he said.
Gift Adeojoh, an Abuja-based resident, said she recently inquired about the price of Actifed, a product of GSK, from a local pharma store to deal with her allergies, but was forced to take another alternative due to the high cost.
“I did not believe it when the sales attendant told me N11,500. I got this product for less than N4,000 two years ago or so. I simply bought another drug, then combined it with some natural remedies and I got better after all,” she said.
In August 2023, GSK, after over 50 years in Nigeria, announced its decision to discontinue the direct commercialisation of prescription medicines and vaccines in the country. The British multinational pharmaceutical company cited operational challenges, including difficulties in maintaining a steady drug supply and the scarcity of foreign exchange, leading to a strategic shift towards a third-party distribution model.
Following suit, French pharmaceutical player Sanofi-Aventis Nigeria Limited announced its departure from Nigeria in November 2023, effective February 2024. The decision has raised questions about the future availability and affordability of vital medications, such as the anti-malarial Lariam and the anticoagulant Clexane, which will now be distributed solely by third parties.
Although it is not a pharmaceutical company, Procter & Gamble’s decision to transition to an import-only model by the end of 2024 is expected to impact the availability of essential healthcare products like Vicks Vaporub and Pampers diapers.
Tunji Alausa, the country’s minister of state for health, pointed out at an event in Abuja in August last year that traditional medicine is easily accessible, culturally accepted, and trusted by a significant number of people.
Ogbonna Eyinnaya, a resident in the Bwari Area Council of Abuja, attested to the popularity of traditional herbs in Bwari. He said affordability remains a major factor driving demand, especially when compared to the cost of drugs.
Eyinnnaya, who is a local shoe cobbler, is one of the millions of Nigerians living below the poverty line.
The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said in 2022 that over 133 million Nigerians were living in multidimensional poverty due to a lack of access to health, education, and living standards, alongside unemployment and shocks.
The country’s double-digit inflation rate, which stood at 28.9 percent in December 2023, has further squeezed the finances of many Nigerians.
The surge in prices of essential drugs is further exacerbated by Nigeria’s heavy reliance on importation due to a lack of adequate local capacity, leaving it susceptible to shocks.
In 2023, Nigeria imported medications worth N81.81 billion from July to September. This is an increase of 68 percent from the N48.74 billion worth of drugs imported in the same quarter of 2022, according to the NBS.
With fewer manufacturers and distributors due to the exits of major pharmaceutical companies, healthcare experts predict decreased competition, leading to a continued surge in prices for essential and generic drugs.
They suggest that developing traditional medicine to complement orthodox practices could provide relief to Nigerians squeezed by high inflation and rising drug costs.
Adaobi Onyechi, a public health expert, said Nigeria must begin to seriously look for local solutions to meet its healthcare needs.