Over the years efforts have been made by successive administrations to introduce good health care delivery system in Nigeria including the provision of quality, efficacious and affordable pharmaceutical drugs.
In 1995, for instance a National Health Summit was organised primarily to seek ways of accelerating health development in the country. Participants at the summit which included health experts, leaders, policy makers, health providers, health planners and administrators, and representatives of health-related sectors examined the factors that had militated against improvement in Nigeria’s national health status and tried to chart a course of remedial action that would take Nigerians into the 21st Century and beyond in good health.
Consequently, the recommendations that emerged from the Summit and other subsequent activities called for the need to take a critical look at the National Health Policy with a view to effecting those changes that would speed up the process of health development in Nigeria.
In response to that the Nigerian government through the Federal ministry of Health (FMOH) therefore, put in place intervention programmes and policies to meet these needs. That led to the establishment of National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) on January 1, 1994 as a parastatal of the federal ministry of health.
Since its inception NAFDAC had faced a lot of challenges in meeting its constitutionally assigned role which is anchored on safeguarding the health of the nation. In deed the challenge posed by the prevalence of substandard medicines in the country is perhaps the impetus that agency needed to frontally and aggressively confront the menace.
NAFDAC among its numerous approaches geared towards eradication of fake drugs, had on February 2, 2010, launched what is called Mobile Authentication Service (MAS). This cutting edge technology enables a consumer to determine whether a drug is fake or genuine through a mobile phone.
The technology works this way: manufacturers of pharmaceutical products are mandated by NAFDAC to affix MAS label to blister packs inside each box of medicine. Each label has a unique scratch-off identification number. Consumers text the identification to a number on the box, and instantly get a text back saying whether the medicine is fake or genuine. In other words, the responsibility of detecting substandard medicine is now placed in the hands of consumers at the instance of this technology.
The introduction of the MAS technology by NAFDAC became necessary following the diverse but dynamic approaches that unscrupulous merchants of counterfeit medicines had adopted in beating all the agency’s strategies aimed at tracking them. For instance, promoters of substandard medicines took advantage of the technological advancements to achieve perfection in their criminal activities. A significant percentage of substandard medicines in circulation in the country cannot easily be detected by the naked eyes.
With the aid of sophisticated technological tools fakers are able to design and package medicine products to look like the original – thereby putting the lives of millions of Nigerians at risk.
The deployment of MAS by NAFDAC has remained an effective strategy adopted by NAFDAC to put activities of unscrupulous traders in check. Promoters of substandard medicines ran riot on commonly used medicines such as anti-malarial and antibiotics prior to the enlistment of this cutting edge technology in the NAFDAC armaments against fakers of medicines. Today, a good number of the unscrupulous elements have been sufficiently discouraged from further engagement with their nefarious activities.
However, there have been concerns in some quarters that MAS is beginning to show some unintended consequences in its application. Some stakeholders in health are currently agitating against MAS on account of constituting a nuisance to efficient marketing of pharmaceutical products already covered by MAS policy. The agitation is primarily directed at frequency of network failures at a time consumers try to confirm the authenticity of the products they are buying.
The Association of Community Pharmacists of Nigeria (ACPN) is not finding it funny with the incessant network failures associated with MAS and the increasingly negative report on the issue by consumers. ACPN feels that such a development is capable of eroding the confidence customers have on their products, and consequently impact negatively on their reputation.
This line of thinking may be right in some respect but it appears to be wrong headedly articulated. Network failures are not consigned to Nigerians alone. It is a global phenomenon and the tools at work are man-made which are not devoid of breakdown. Therefore for any group to use network failures as excuse to castigate the novel MAS policy is to display utter ignorance. After all, there have been several instances where a subscriber needs to recharge and the network fails to accept the PIN which represents the money you pay the telecoms company in other to gain access to the network. Therefore, the inability of consumers to get immediate response from the various networks as at when expected and the alleged frequency it occurs should be seen more as part of the infrastructural challenges besetting the country rather than being seen as an indication that the medicine is fake.
In other to allay such fears, ACPN members have a role to play in this regard. It is incumbent on them to first of all take responsibility of their services by driving their businesses on a credible platform. Majority of consumers visit pharmacies based on credibility of the owner and not necessarily on the outcome of MAS inquest. Not too many Nigerians would want to spare one second of their precious time in trying to embark on scratch off expedition.
Besides, ACPN leaders should as a matter of policy fashion out unique ways its members should conduct their services in other to appear as an organised body no matter where a member is located. It is only by so doing that members of the public would readily distinguish a member from a patent medicine dealer.
More so, the way of doing business is changing and only those who could see it can adjust to it. To remain fixated with the old order could be dangerous. APCN should be in the forefront of sensitising the public on this new policy since they are closest to them and not to castigate it. Beyond bottom line lies the integrity and credibility of the pharmaceutical industry and profession, and ACPN members are under obligation to protect them. This revolution initiated by NAFDAC has succeeded in placing Nigeria in the league of serious countries in the world ready to do anything to protect the lives of its citizens. In addition, MAS guarantees befitting and enduring corporate image for pharmaceutical companies and their products, thus ensuring high level product patronage with attendant high revenue yield for such firms.
It therefore means that MAS is the way to go for the promotion of local manufacturing of medicines. The war on substandard medicines is challenging though, but we must remember that fake medicine sometimes kills outright. More frequently, it kills by robbing patients of the therapeutic value of drugs needed. And some fakes contain a small amount of the active ingredient – not enough to cure an illness, but enough to promote resistance that renders even genuine medicines powerless. That is the most deadly effect of all, and therefore should not be allowed to be rooted in Nigeria.
•Pharm. Chris Ukah is the Publisher of a foremost pharmaceutical & Health monthly publication - PharmaTimes