• Thursday, December 07, 2023
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Soaring prices leave Nigerians caught between food and medicine

Prices of food and medicine

In a year political leaders deemed it fit to splash out billions of naira on luxury cars and the renovation of their offices, many Nigerians like Joe face an agonising choice: to quench their hunger or procure the lifesaving medicine that keeps their bipolar disorder in check.

An unplanned family meeting was held over Joe’s health last week after a distressing relapse left him skinny, restless and agitated, all symptoms of lack of adherence to treatment plan.

It is important for people grappling with such conditions to see a health professional regularly to prevent a full-blown relapse and have prescription treatments at their disposal.

They need to get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, exercise, avoid stress, and stay connected with family and friends.

But Joe has seen his N35,000 salary eroded by the surge in food prices and transportation costs, causing him to neglect his ongoing treatment.

“What I earn now can barely feed me in a month, let alone afford the cost of medicine. If I don’t eat, I can’t use drugs,” the 50-year-old said, lamenting what he considered inadequate support from his siblings.

He stopped visiting the hospital in August after the cost of his medicines jumped from less than N8,000 to about N12,000, which would leave him with just N23,000 and the goodwill of others to survive.

When Hadassah, a 40-year-old mother of three who also manages bipolar disorder, got her prescription from doctors at the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Yaba on November 8, the cost had more than doubled.

For instance, she used to get Encorate Chrono 200, a brand of sodium valproate produced in India, for around N4,000-N6,000.

But the importation of the drug was recently halted, and the only alternative at the time she was buying was Epilim 200 Gastro-resistant tablets, a brand produced in Spain that cost N11,000.

Hadassah, who teaches a science subject at a secondary school in Lagos, has repeatedly battled cases of full-blown relapse for almost two decades.

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And just when she seems to be winning against the illness by achieving a level of stability that can lock down a job like teaching, Nigeria’s economic challenges are about to erode those gains, without significant interventions in sight to aid people in her shoes.

“Tinubu just handed us a death sentence. With N10,000 before, I could buy my two drugs for a month. But what the price surge means is that now, with that N10,000, I can’t even buy one of them for two weeks. This also means I will need close to N25,000 or N30,000 to buy my two drugs for a month,” Hadassah told BusinessDay.

“Already I drink garri because of the high cost of feeding. Then you say I can’t also have my medication? The president should not make food and medicine out of reach. It’s like saying go and die.”

Nigeria’s inflation rate accelerated in October for the 10th straight month, driven by rising food prices, to 27.33 percent, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics.

Food and non-alcoholic beverages were the primary drivers, contributing 14.16 percent to the further rise in inflation.

Food inflation rose to 31.52 percent in October, up from 30.64 percent in the previous month.

Meanwhile, about 90 percent of the medicines consumed in Nigeria are imported, according to the Health Federation of Nigeria.

This year alone, there has been about a 300 percent rise in the cost of pharmaceutical products, thanks to increased cost of importing raw materials occasioned by naira depreciation amid dollar scarcity, high import tariffs, and rising petrol and diesel prices.

The foreign exchange crisis in the country has led some pharmaceutical companies to quicken their plans to exit the country, putting the average cost of some of their drugs completely beyond the reach of millions of Nigerians who have no insurance coverage and have to pay out of pocket for at least 80 percent of their medical expenses.

The cost of importing goods has soared, forcing importers to cut back on their inventories and raw material imports, and some of them have had to abandon their containers at the ports, according to BusinessDay findings.

Tony Anakebe, a Lagos-based Customs licensed agent, citing the economic impact of the continued adjustment of exchange rates for cargo clearing at the port, said his company recently cleared a 40-foot container of medicines for N17 million.

According to him, the rate of clearing the same amount of medicines was N7 million about a year ago.

“The prices of drugs are surging uncontrollably. This is putting both the sick and the importers of drugs under serious pressure. This situation is also breeding unhealthy competition among the importers as many of them will now have room to bring fake and substandard medicines into the Nigerian market. How can the poor masses afford the high prices of drugs?” Anakebe asked.

Read also: Rising food price and wellbeing of Nigerians

For anti-asthmatic drugs, a lot of patients are groaning under the weight of unprecedented price hikes as they scamper to raise funds before they run out of current supply.

The price of Seretide, a brand of medical inhalation powder, has skyrocketed from N5,000 in April to an average of N55,000 in November.

Ventolin inhaler has become scarce following the exit of its producer, GSK, from Nigeria.

What patients are facing now is a surge in the cost of alternative treatment, which used to be the cheaper option.

For instance, Aeroline Inhaler jumped from N1,900 earlier in the year to N4,500 in September.

Pamela Ajayi, president of Healthcare Federation of Nigeria, said the federal government urgently needs to eliminate all taxes and duties and ensure people can bring in equipment for local drug production to flourish.

She urged the government to work with big pharmaceutical industries like Emzor and Fidson who can turn things around.

Read also: Price of inhalers surge 450% on worsening FX scarcity

“Already we have the challenge of weak infrastructure and lack of power supply in Nigeria. To set up any industry is a challenge. We still think it is more expensive to produce locally,” Ajayi said.

“The current challenge we have is with the devaluation of the naira and the fact that over 90 percent of the drugs we consume are imported. The crisis is real. We need to make sure people are encouraged to produce.”