On Killing Malaria

More than two weeks after the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), in quick response to controversies surrounding reports of ‘killer’ anti-malarial drugs circulating nationwide, stated that it would deploy software on phones to ascertain the status of any NAFDAC regulated products, nothing seems to have been done in that direction.

The NAFDAC’s Acting-Director, Dr. Yetunde Oni, who made this declaration at the time, was reacting to the investigative probe panel instituted by the Senate Committee on Health over the viral social media report. According to the information from the social media, certain categories of malaria drugs banned in Europe were being stockpiled, sold and consumed in Nigeria. These drugs, about 42 in number, included such street-familiar brands like Alaxin, Artesunate, Camoquine, amongst others. And in reaction to this report, the Senate had immediately called on its committee on health to probe the allegation. Almost immediately too NAFDAC, in its reaction described the report as false.

By reacting without clarifying the incident, the Senate was too hasty. Such haste is a telling embarrassment to the National Assembly. On the other hand, if the report was false as described by NAFDAC, what then was the Senate going to probe? Now, the ripples have worn out; it is business as usual, thereby lending credence to the thinking that the responses from both the Senate and NAFDAC to the panic-bearing reports of circulating ‘kidney-killer’ malaria drugs might have been mere political statements.

While NAFDAC’s response to the controversial report was a routine exercise in the right direction, it is the belief of many informed Nigerians that the agency should have been more pro-active in its public enlightenment strategy. Had it been known that some malaria drugs were banned in all the states of Europe, the least NAFDAC would have done was to immediately alert Nigerians about the development in Europe rather than wait for the social media to feast on that news and cause some mischief. Had NAFDAC pre-empted the reaction in the social media and taken the prerogative of first disseminator of the report, the unnecessary alarm created as well as the imprudent goof of the Senate, by reacting without clarification, would have been avoided.

Thus, whilst there is need for national agencies to keep abreast of international dynamics in the control of food and drugs, and the health sector in general, the nation’s law makers should be cautious in their reaction to information in the public domain, especially the social media. As privileged public servants, they should not, like the masses, be drifting like the masses in the currents of information overload. With their array of aides and researchers, law makers should be privileged recipients of the clearest ideas of the subject issues on which they adjudicate. Furthermore, the caution over needless haste in disseminating information also goes to the internet-savvy Nigerians who are quick to pass on information without deep reflection about their effect and value on the polity.

Beyond this, Nigeria has to take a leap further than being reactionary. Cognizant of the phenomenal consumerism and neo-capitalist tendencies pervading the world today, there is the assumption that there is no product that cannot be counterfeited. This suggests the likely existence of a network of corrupt blue chip pharmaceutical companies colluding with unscrupulous elite to rip off unsuspecting nations and ignorant people in developing countries. As this newspaper has consistently warned, our medical institutions, research and policy institutions, should not be caught off-guard. They should be alert to the global ‘malaria politics’ that turns malaria-prone developing nations into money-spinning experimental laboratories of dubious foreign investors and their African cohorts.

One safe way of guarding against this scenario is for African and Nigerian medical and scientific research organisations to ensure that funding and research into challenges confronting African people are sponsored and controlled by African governments. That we identify and acknowledge that malaria and other health issues are problems is the first step towards solving these problems. But we need to go further by initiating ideas and working out modalities to address them. The point has been made before: Our leaders must not wait for special foreign organisations and research agencies of more powerful western nations, to reluctantly address our health issues by turning us into guinea-pigs for their own medical research initiatives. A nationally guided pro-active research should be instituted.

It is for this reason that the idea of deploying software on phones, to ascertain the status of NAFDAC-certified anti-malarial and other drugs, has become very urgent. Although the use of cell phones is now commonplace, the agency should not be deceived that mere usage or possession of a cell phone would ensure compliance. NAFDAC would need to liaise with non-governmental organisations, consumer rights groups, educational and religious bodies to effectively enlighten the populace, especially people in the outskirts of city, slums and rural areas, on the improved benefits of the software. This is because they are those mostly hit by the marketing of fake drugs.