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Why Fake Drugs, Quack Doctors Thrive 

By Nwunfor Babila Niba*

Sometime in the 1980’s it was fashionable for administrators, and other public office holders to talk glibly of heath for all by the year 2000. If 200 public speeches were delivered on any given day, at least 180 of such speeches would contain the slogan "Health for All by the Year 2000". It had become a sing-song. But the fact was that many of those who sang this refrain hadn’t the faintest idea of how to transform dream into reality.

Nine clear years from the magic 2000, Cameroonians are instead experiencing the very opposite of that much trumpeted slogan.  Politicians and their appendage administrators have very conveniently forgotten how they employed every occasion of a speech to literally promise life everlasting for Cameroonians. Poverty and corruption have taken their toll on the nation’s health sector, leaving it open for traditional medicine practitioners, itinerant drug vendors and in some cases, outright charlatans, quacks and emergency health contractors to lay claim to healing.

Sadly though, this apparently, is the easiest access the average man in the street, has to medical attention, no thanks to a biting economic crunch; a crunch that makes it practically difficult for patients to consult and get treated in conventional medical institutions. Such patients, nowadays, resort to the relatively cheap attention of tradi-practitioners or they simply turn around and purchase dubious drugs from self-made itinerant pharmacists. The dangerous practice of self-medication is now rife, nine years after the promise that there was going to be quality health for all.

Street-wise  self-made chemists are aggressively  advertising in newspapers, radio and television stations and indeed, every street corner, having taken advantage of the gullibility of the masses and their inability to afford conventional healthcare. In certain cases, one is offered this single magical drug "capable of curing up to 200 diseases".

One can hardly sort out genuine tradipractitioners from con artists, hungry to make money off patients. A roadside drug peddler told The Post that he couldn’t knowingly sell fake drugs to anyone, as he would personally be left with a heavy conscience. He said roadside drug dealers stay in business because many people can’t afford going to hospital or pharmacies. He added that they establish a trust relationship with consumers, making it hard for them to cheat on their clients. 

He also advised consumers to watch out for expiring dates when buying any drug.
Most roadside drug dealers interviewed argued that the drugs they hawk are not demanding in terms of preservation. One said he sells just what clients ask for, mostly drugs for cases like headache, malaria, and typhoid. He said patients with complicated illnesses are advised to consult in hospitals. One of them thought that, Cameroonians need to be informed on how their organisms function, adding that, roadside drug dealers are valuable to those with a clear knowledge of what they want.

He gave the example of a patient who is prescribed drugs in hospital. "When next you manifest the same symptoms, you already know what drugs to take. You know these drugs you want are sold expensively in the pharmacies. So you come to us instead, and we give you the same drugs but at a cheaper price" he said. Explaining why their drugs are cheaper, another roadside dealer said, they have no licenses and do not pay taxes like do pharmacies. One drug dealer admitted to The Post that, he had barely any formation prior to hawking drugs but learned on the job.

Pharmacists consider the sales of roadside drugs unethical, complaining that before setting up shop, they must be licensed. Also, they say it is mandatory that they pay taxes like regular workers. They argue that illegal drug peddling reduces gains, which they consider uncalled for.
"It is just like soliciting somebody who has not passed the bar examination to defend you in a court of law, on which your life depends; why should people put their lives in jeopardy?" commented John Tamufor of Winners Pharmacy.

According to him, roadside drug dealers are not professionals and so put lives in danger. He also advised tradipractitioners to form an association supervised by Government, where drugs are screened before being sold to the public. He complained that the regional task forces set up by Government to curb drug peddling is not effective.  He said, the Pharmaceutical Board, has been pressing on Government to do more.

An Enamen Pharmacy Accountant, Emmanuel Djamo, would want Government to summon a meeting with roadside drug dealers in order for a syndicate to be established to control the sales of roadside drugs. He said it is almost impossible to totally stamp out the practice.
Addressing the complaints about high drug prices, a pharmacist at Amazing Pharmacy explained that, retailers do not determine cost price. She said cost price is determined by distributors and Government. She advised those who ill afford drugs in private pharmacies to buy from Government pro-pharmacies at subsidized costs.

Southwest Public Health Regional Delegate Dr John Tchuwanga qualified roadside drug selling as dangerous and disturbing. Perpetrators of this act, he said, are not combating poverty but impoverishing themselves the more. He said any drug, genuine or fake, in the hands of a non-health worker is unsafe. He decried the fact that, persons given licenses to do business ended up selling drugs instead. 

The Ministry of Public Health, he said, has been carrying out raids on roadside drug dealers, but that they keep sprouting. An effective clamp down on this ill, he added, demands a joined effort of the administration and Public Health Ministry. He said that, in the months of May and April, the Ministry oversaw the destruction of some illegal drugs. "One is still to find out how they are replenished. It is a syndicate, difficult to completely eradicate, but we are doing our best to fight against the practice," explained Dr Tchuwanga.

Dr Tchuwanga said it is difficult to define a traditional doctor any longer, as charlatans now bedevil the practice. Charlatans, he says, make exaggerated utterances on busses, on the number of illnesses one drug can cure.

"Illnesses which require surgery are taken for granted by individuals who say they can treat it traditionally", he said. Such charlatans, to him, aggravate the cases of the common man since they end up in hospitals for proper treatment. He also criticised those who blame the selling of roadside medicines on poverty; "This is not an excuse to engage in practices that will harm others," he said.

The Director of the Buea Regional Hospital, Dr Monono Njie said, every drug is a potential poison, and so must be handled by professionals who understand their pharmacological implications. "Drugs handlers ought to understand the content of a drug, its usage and its side effects", he said. 

He fears that, since these drugs are not handled by professionals, they risk being abused through over- and under-dosage or through improper preservation. "If a person who complains of poverty has say, five hundred francs and buys the wrong medication from the roadside, he or she is being careless, since that same amount could provide for drugs to treat malaria or headache, in Government health establishments in the country" he said.

Dr Njie emphasized on the education of society by the likes of journalists, doctors, government personnel, and non-governmental organisations on the dangers of roadside drugs and on the right attitude to adopt. Dr Njie acknowledged the threats posed by charlatans in the discipline of alternative medicines. He however emphasized that, some traditional doctors are genuine. He said the Ministry of Public Health is seeking avenues to get doctors and tradi-practitioners to work together and exchange ideas.  "Standards need to be set on how it is done", he added. Despite the temptation of buying cheap drugs, some Buea denizens The Post interviewed, said they were against the practice.

Marcus Ngwanah of Calvary Health Services said roadside drugs are harmful. He would want that all drugs be bought from hospitals and pharmacies. A businessman Eric Che complained that, some of these roadside drugs are prepared in the neighbourhoods, and so may be poisonous. "If you think the drug that will provide you with the right health is expensive, then you go for illness", he quipped.

(UB Journalism Student On Internship)

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