Trafficking fake drugs in the Sahel!

Photo credit: African Health

In 2022, 70 Gambian babies and young children died from kidney failure.

UN News reports that the young ones died after taking fake drugs given to them by their caregivers.

In a feature on the trade in substandard and fake medicines, it is reported that the illicit trade grew during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. However, the UN and partner countries in Africa’s Sahel region are trying to dismantle the trade.

Contraband baby cough syrup is killing almost half a million people in the region every year. The region is home to 300 million people. But while fake drugs are being discouraged, Sahelians are facing strife. Over 2.9 million people have been displaced by conflict and violence. Armed groups are launching attacks that have resulted in the closure of 11,000 schools and 7,000 health centres.

The region has the world’s highest incidence of malaria while infectious diseases are one of the highest causes of death. Since legal health care is people are forced to resort to the illegal market to treat self-diagnosed diseases or symptoms. As a result, street markets and unauthorized sellers are the only sources of medicines and pharmaceutical products.

Of course, the result is a high death rate.

267,000 sub-Saharan Africans are killed by fake or substandard antimalarial medicines every year. Almost 170,000 children in the region die every year from unauthorized antibiotics used to treat severe pneumonia. The cost of treatment for people who have used fake or substandard medicine to treat malaria is up to $44.7 million every year according to WHO estimates.

Even when the drugs are available, corruption will affect their distribution. Around 40 per cent of substandard and falsified medical products reported in the region between 2013 and 2021 get to the regular supply chain. Products from Belgium, China, France and India are diverted from the regular supply chain and some end up on pharmacy shelves.

The offenders are employees of pharmaceutical companies, public officers, law enforcement officers, health agency workers and street vendors. They are motivated by financial gain. Since the demand is there, traffickers are finding more sophisticated routes. They work with pharmacists and some of them even take their crimes online.

However, there are efforts to approach the problem on a regional level. All countries in the region except Mauritania have signed a treaty to establish an African medicines agency. The African Medicines Regulatory Harmonization initiative was launched by the African Union in 2009. It is aimed at improving access to safe and affordable medicine.

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