• Tuesday, April 16, 2024
businessday logo

BusinessDay

Fake products overrun regulators, endanger Nigerians

Fake drugs overrun regulators, endangers Nigerians

Nigeria is grappling with a proliferation of counterfeit and substandard products including food items and medicines, a situation that is putting millions of lives at risk.

A 2023 Bloomberg report labelled Nigeria as the most counterfeit market in the developing world, and ranked prominently among African nations grappling with the devastating consequences of fake drugs, causing thousands of annual fatalities.

These fake medicines and products often contain harmful substances or lack essential ingredients, and several Nigerians have fallen victim to them.

Read also: Nigerians resort to harmful alternatives as cost of drugs spike

Recounting her harrowing experience, Juliet Odoh, an Abuja-based accountant said her eight-months-old son developed rashes and bumps after using supposedly trusted baby lotion and soap.

“I bought this soap and lotion from a neighborhood supermarket close to my house but just two days after use, I saw strange rashes on my 8-month-old son. It was strange to me because it was his regular soap and oil. I couldn’t tell whether it was the soap or lotion causing the bumps and rashes so I discarded it immediately,” she said.

There was also the tragic incident in April 2021 in Kano, where about 10 people died and 50 others underwent kidney-related treatment after consuming “substandard and fake” juices. Health authorities in the state reported that no fewer than 400 persons were admitted to government hospitals after consuming the drinks.

Many Nigerians are exposed to substandard and fake medicines and products despite the existence of regulatory bodies like the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), whose primary duties are to ensure that goods manufactured, imported, distributed and sold in Nigeria and safe, original and of quality.

The recent discovery of counterfeit wines and beverages in Aba sparked outrage over the role of the NAFDAC and SON, prompting calls for the overhaul of the agencies.

In 2022, the National Primary Healthcare Development Agency reported that over 70 percent of drugs being dispensed in Nigeria were substandard, and a majority of Nigerians did not have access to quality health services, even though NAFDAC has disputed this figure, indicating that the prevalence was at 15 percent.

Counterfeit products worth $750,000, including beverages, packaged foods, medicines and toiletries, were recently destroyed by the agency.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, in its report published in 2023, found that as many as 267,000 deaths per year were linked to falsified and substandard antimalarial medicines in sub-Saharan Africa, and up to 169,271 were linked to falsified and substandard antibiotics used to treat severe pneumonia in children.

Read also: NDLEA intercepts illicit drugs, arms from South Africa

While some blame the current economic situation in the country as fueling the incidence of counterfeiting, many attributed it to ineffective regulation, monitoring and enforcement.

Muda Yusuf, CEO of the Centre for the Promotion of Private Enterprise, told BusinessDay: “The current economic situation has been fuelling the incidence of counterfeiting, unfortunately. The production cost and prices of many original products is escalating phenomenally.

“That creates a lot of incentives for counterfeiters to cash in because they know that most people will not be able to afford the original products. The regulatory agencies need to sit up, build their capacity to gather intelligence and information to track down these counterfeiters.”

Several other factors are also blamed, one of which is the highly unregulated open drug markets in major cities in the country where medicines are hawked and sold indiscriminately on street corners, bus stops, kiosks, and stalls.

Notable open drug markets in Nigeria include those located in Sabon-Gari market, Kano; Idumota market, Lagos; Onitsha head-bridge market; Ariaria Market, Aba; and Mile 1 and Mile 3 markets, Rivers.

Nigeria’s overreliance on imports is also seen as facilitating the spread of falsified products. More than 70 percent of drugs in Nigeria are imported, mainly from India and China, which are two of the world’s biggest sources of counterfeit medicines.

A 2023 report by Organised Crime: West African Response to Trafficking, titled, ‘Bad pharma: trafficking illicit medical products in West Africa.’ revealed that illicit and counterfeit medical products from China and India were taking over the drug markets in Nigeria, and other countries in West Africa.

It also found that within the region, Nigeria and Ghana are the major manufacturers of both legal and illicit medical products, whereas large-scale production is more limited in Francophone West Africa.

The report said illicit manufacturers do not export their medical products directly and instead use intermediaries in local freight companies connected to the West African diaspora – such as the Nigerian contingent in the city port of Guangzhou in China.

It also exposed how out of 172 pharmaceutical manufacturers based in ECOWAS countries, 120 are in Nigeria and 37 in Ghana, and these official producers sit alongside a raft of illegal labs.

Read also: Oyo distributes veterinary drugs to 33 LGAs, plans reduction in zoonotic disease

The journey in transporting counterfeit drugs, according to the report, can take several months, involving several transit points popular with traffickers, including the free trade zones in the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, as a means of concealing the source of the shipment.

Mojisola Adeyeye, director general of NAFDAC, recently lamented that Nigerians were facilitating the spread of counterfeit drugs by conniving with manufacturers and distributors for selfish gains.

A 2019 PwC report estimated that Nigeria was losing about N200 billion annually to counterfeit medicine, excluding substandard drugs.

Those who spoke to BusinessDay are of the view that with lack of rigorous inspection and enforcement measures, perpetrators have been emboldened to flood the market with substandard items, endangering unsuspecting consumers.

The NAFDAC boss has repeatedly said the agency did not have the staff to effectively police 50,020 registered medicines, including herbal drugs, cosmetics, foods, medical devices, and vaccines.

Farouk Salim, former director general of SON, said the penalty for offenders is not sufficient. He added that in 2015, the penalty for importing sub-standard products was N1 million but that N1 million is no longer significant as those importing these products are rich.

“In the industry where people break the rules, it is the consequences that stop them. So, we need to amend the Act to increase the jail term or give them the right to fine and make sure that jail term is added to it,” Salim had said.

Adaobi Onyechi, a public health expert, emphasised the dire consequences of counterfeit medicines on public health. She said the ineffectiveness or harm caused by these products not only escalates healthcare costs but also jeopardizes universal health coverage.

“It even worsens out-of-pocket expenditure because Nigerians who buy substandard and counterfeit drugs and it doesn’t work for them or puts them in a critical condition end up paying more for health,” she said.

“The economic impacts of the proliferation of these counterfeit products includes an ‘underground economy’ that deprives the government of revenue for vital public services, forces higher burden on taxpayers, and dislocates hundreds of thousands of legitimate jobs,” Muda Yusuf, CEO, Centre for the Promotion of Private Enterprise, said.

Ikechukwu Joseph, owner of an electronic business in Wuse market in Abuja, spoke of how the trend continues to erode trust as buyers constantly worry about the authenticity of what they are buying.

Read also: Calls for specialised, locally-made drugs grow as cost bites

“We all know that health is wealth, the importance of our health cannot be undermined and if there are fake products in town, it just tells us that there will be a lot of more health challenges ranging from kidney issues, liver issues and even chronic disease that should have been controlled, because of the lack of standardization and regulatory authorities. People with chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, can be victims of these products,” Sam Adu, a medical expert with Aman Medicare, said.