The African population is estimated at 1.2 billion and is projected to grow significantly in the next decade by doubling by the year 2050. Large African populations coexist in the continent with a high burden of communicable and non-communicable diseases. This makes the land fertile to the pharmaceutical industry, however, it also makes it an easy target for counterfeit and substandard pharmaceutical drugs/products penetration.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) report on the fake drugs trade, over US$30 billion is earned annually. Worldwide, counterfeit and substandard pharmaceutical drugs market up to US$200 billion worth of products, and about 42% of detected cases occurred in Africa. Africa as a continent being dominated by poor and developing countries suffers a penetration of counterfeit/substandard pharmaceutical products of 30% as opposed to the developed Western world which stand at 1%, according to a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). In 2017, WHO estimated that one in 10 medical products in low- and middle-income countries was either substandard or falsified.
The University of Edinburgh reports that between 72 000 and 169 000 children die annually from pneumonia due to counterfeit or substandard antibiotics, whereas the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says fake malaria drugs cause an additional 64 000 – 158 000 deaths every year in sub-Saharan Africa, which come at a cost of between US$21 – US$52 million. This gives a clear indication that the poorest and most vulnerable populations suffered the most in terms of health and finances as many African countries spend millions and millions on procuring most of these substandard drugs, and Namibia is no exception to this.
The easy penetration of such counterfeit or substandard pharmaceutical products can be attributed to lack and weak health regulatory systems in most African countries. In 2014, (Luanda, Angola) the African Union (AU) through African ministers of health established the African Medicines Agency (AMA) treaty, which to date only 19 African countries including Namibia have signed and ratified. However, the AMA treaty only aimed to strengthen quality control and provide regulatory guidance on pharmaceuticals, hence, it will not solve Africa’s pharmaceuticals research & development (R&D) and production dilemma.
As the world currently grapples with Covid-19 vaccine acquisition, Africa finds herself again in a mess with the circulation of thousands of fake Covid-19 vaccines as recently reported in South Africa, where thousands of fake Covid-19 vaccines were seized by Interpol. While the rest of Africa is grasping at straws, the Western countries have acquired enough vaccines and have rolled out vaccination for their citizens. This could be attributed to citizens of those countries having confidence and trust in the vaccines mainly because they produced by their own.
Namibia and many other African countries paid millions and millions last year with the hope and promise to have access to Covid-19 vaccine once it became available, however, to date these efforts still remain a “hope and promise”. But Western countries have already acquired and rolled out their vaccination campaigns.
Yet, you can’t blame them, especially in this 21st century, in the world of survival of the fittest. The reality on the ground is clear: Africa is at the crossroads. If Africa is to survive future health storms, Africa needs to do better, African countries need to come together and strive for a common good pertaining to African pharmaceuticals R&D and production; African countries need to invest in local R&D, Africa cannot keep surviving storm after storm merely on the generosity of the Western world.
Although – by God’s grace – the Covid-19 impact was not catastrophic, compared to other continents, the scramble for authentic vaccines should serve as a wake-up call to Africa, especially those in power. The realisation is that with this pandemic and probably future pandemics no one’s safe and charity begins at home. Hence health, especially R&D and production should be taken seriously in the political arena.
In a recently visual meeting on Africa’s readiness for home-grown vaccines, the director general of WHO, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, indicated that Africa cannot afford to find herself again in this situation in future; hence, African countries should act with sense of urgency to ratify the treaty for the Africans Medicines Agency and invest in local production.