Health indicators in Nigeria are horrible. A fresh twist to the ugly narrative emerged at the 2017 conference of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria: The gathering reiterated the absence of vaccines and drugs in the country. This is discomfiting; it comes with serious implications because a sick citizenry is indicative of a failing state. The alarm should prompt the Muhammadu Buhari government into instant action.
Concerned that “the development poses (a) huge security risk to the Nigerian populace,” the PSN blames the anomaly on the absence of local production of vaccines and medicines. Consequently, Nigeria now depends wholly on imported vaccines to treat its citizens. This is dangerous. It explains why emergencies or outbreaks of diseases have been difficult to control. The ball is in the court of the Minister of Health, Isaac Adewole, to kick-start a process that will re-energise the local production of vaccines.
The result of the deficit has been all too glaring. One, some diseases, which are preventable through vaccination, have been ravaging the citizens. Two, the country is ill-prepared to contain outbreaks of diseases. Three, it cannot think of eradicating diseases that have been successfully conquered in other parts of the world. This is regrettable.
This vacuum came to the fore again last December following a deadly outbreak of Cerebro-Spinal Meningitis. The epidemic spread to 90 local government areas across 15 states, according to the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control. Unfortunately, because of vaccine shortage, it took several months to bring it under control. By June 2017, it had killed 1,158 persons out of 14,473 cases. Lassa fever killed 78 people out of 404 cases in 15 states between December 2016 and June 2017.
The official negligence is heightened by the fact that these diseases occur mostly on an annual basis. A government conscious of public health ought to have made provisions for this. Apart from Lassa fever and meningitis, Nigeria has also battled with outbreaks of monkeypox, Ebola Virus Disease, poliomyelitis, measles and yellow fever, among others. With the absence of vaccines, these diseases will continually pose a threat to public health.
Medical professionals say that vaccination is a health security issue that should be of utmost priority to every government. “The science of vaccination is the most significant in public health in the past 200 years,” a medical note says. “This is because it works to protect children, mothers and adults from diseases.” There are 12 most-common and serious vaccine-preventable diseases, says the World Health Organisation. They include diphtheria, haemophilia, hepatitis B, measles, meningitis and mumps. The rest are pertussis (whooping cough), poliomyelitis, rubella, tetanus, tuberculosis and yellow fever. Measles outbreak is still frequent, while Nigeria is one of the few countries yet to be free of polio.
However, Nigeria has no business with the shortage of vaccines. By now, it ought to be meeting its needs and exporting. As far back as 1948, Nigeria had taken a giant step by establishing the Federal Vaccines Production Laboratory in Lagos. At inception, the FVPL was the pride of West Africa because of its capacity to produce for the sub-region.
Through it, Nigeria was able to contain rabies, smallpox and other virulent outbreaks. It supplied the vaccines that contained an outbreak of yellow fever in the country between 1986 and 1987. The United States National Library of Medicine attested to the fact that the FVPL produced five million doses of vaccines that were deployed in the containment of smallpox in the country, which began in 1950. When smallpox reappeared in Ibadan, Oyo State, in 1957, and in Abakaliki, Ebonyi State in 1967, vaccines from the FVPL came to the rescue.
However, the story is completely different now. Since 1991, the FVPL has been shut down on the convenient pretext of an upgrade that went awry. Since then, Nigeria has depended solely on importation. This is not in the best interest of the country. For instance, 250 people died of snakebite recently in Gombe and Plateau states because of the scarcity of the snake anti-venom.
The financial cost of the FVPL’s closure is huge. The importation bazaar, which costs the country between $4 billion and $6 billion annually, according to estimates by health officials, is being fuelled by corruption. Oyewale Tomori, a former president of the Nigerian Academy of Science, said, “For those in charge, importing vaccines is one of the numerous conduits for looting our resources and money laundering.”
To improve the health of Nigerians, Adewole and Buhari must resuscitate the FVPL. During the last outbreak of meningitis, an imported dose of the vaccine, which was subsidised by the WHO, reportedly cost £20, while Cuba produces a similar drug at $4. Not only will domestic production of vaccines save Nigeria a lot in foreign exchange, it will stimulate jobs creation and local expertise. Every agreement being put in place for the FVPL with the private sector should be thoroughly scrutinised to benefit the country.
Vaccination is critical to our survival. Through the Geneva-based GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, 109 million children have received pneumococcal conjugate vaccine in developing countries in the past 10 years, saving 500,000 lives in the process. State governments, which have the capacity, should combine with multilateral aid agencies to establish their own production centres.
The federal and state governments should sensitise the people and discredit the belief that inoculation is against their culture. This is to avoid a repeat of the polio fiasco, during which a section of the country rejected the vaccine because of the misconception that it was a ploy to make them sterile.
The Punch News