BY TENDAI MAKARIPE
SOME unscrupulous health professionals in Harare are running backyard pharmacies in blatant contravention of regulations that prohibit unlicensed personnel from selling drugs to the public.
Inquiries by the Zimbabwe Independent this week revealed that some of the drugs which end up on the black market are pilfered from both public and private health institutions by staff, mainly nurses, pharmacy attendants and other officials with access to drug reserves.
They are then sold at reduced prices to individuals and local pharmacies. The investigation revealed that a number of houses in Harare’s high density suburbs such as Epworth, Warren Park D, Kambuzuma and Kuwadzana openly advertise the drugs.
According to the Medicines and Allied Substances Control Act, dispensing of drugs by unlicensed personnel on unlicensed premises is a serious crime that attracts a fine not exceeding level 12 or imprisonment for a period of five years or both.
Section 53 (1) of the Act provides that: “No person shall practise as or carry on the business of a pharmacist on any premises unless — (a) the premises are licensed in terms of this part for such practice or business; and (b) the premises are under the continuous personal supervision of a person who is licensed in terms of this part for those premises.”
Part (3) of the aforementioned section explicitly notes that: “No person shall dispense any medicine to any person or animal on any premises unless — (a) the premises are licensed in terms of this part in respect of such dispensing; and (b) he is the holder of a licence to dispense such medicine to persons or animals, as the case may be, on those premises.”
Despite these provisions, the practice is rampant. Antibiotics such as amoxicillin and acetaminophen (Tylenol) and painkillers such as aspirin, paracetamol, ibuprofen as well as prescription drugs for chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension are being sold by various unlicensed people.
“This problem has become so widespread that it might be problematic to deal with it,” a senior official at one public health institution in Harare who spoke on condition of anonymity said.
“It is a tightly knit society that involves more people than the ones you see in your area doing the actual selling. People who work in our pharmacies are connected to many people within the system to whom they give the drugs. On the other hand, some pharmacy attendants also steal drugs for resale,” the official said, adding that a few unlucky ones have been caught and arrested over the crime but the problem has not stopped.
Despite the dangers associated with buying drugs from unlicensed people, some members of the public are comfortable doing so to save their hard earned cash.
Research shows that buying drugs from unlicensed individuals creates a bigger problem of addiction among the populace and can also lead to health problems like memory loss, kidney failure, heart problems and death.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), some of the commonly abused medications include cough medicines (Dextromethorphan, or DXM); cold medicines (Pseudoephedrine) and motion sickness pills (Dimenhydrinate)
“Proper pharmacies are selling drugs at exorbitant prices that is why we opt for individuals because their prices are reasonable,” said Tawona Maboreke from Kambuzuma.
“For example, ibrufen costs US$1 for 10 tablets at our local pharmacy but you get 20 tablets for the same price from people who work at hospitals,” he added.
Sibonisiwe Ndhlovu from Kuwadzana echoed Maboreke’s sentiments, further speculating that the problem might be rooted in poor remuneration of health personnel, particularly in the civil service and this leads them to engage in such unruly acts.
“Civil servants are struggling to make ends meet and are doing anything to put food on the table. While it is wrong for them to be stealing drugs from hospitals, government has to look at the bigger picture and address the issue of salaries and allowances because we will continue to have the same problem for as long as the salaries remain paltry,” Ndhlovu said.
However, findings from global research on the weaknesses in the drug distribution chain have proven that the problem is not restricted to Zimbabwe.
They found out that in rich and poor countries alike, drugs often circulate outside of the main distribution channels without a drug pedigree, a record of “each prior sale, purchase, or trade of a drug, including the date of those transactions and the names and addresses of all parties to them.
Health Professions Authority (HPA) public relations manager, Tariro Manamike acknowledged that the problem was widespread.
“Pharmaceutical drugs are being sold in a number of places including Epworth and even in the central business district,” he said.
“However, HPA is doing its best to educate people on such matters, promoting ethical values among health personnel as well as inspecting institutions to ensure that there is compliance with expected standards,” she said.
The Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (Zacc), public education officer, Reverend Magowa warned unscrupulous pharmacies.
“We are going to have inspections at pharmacies to establish where they source the medication they sell. They should be able to provide us with the relevant paperwork. Failure to do this might have serious consequences for the owners,” he said.
Health analysts noted that the problem can also be addressed by introducing track-and-trace systems that allow all interested parties to track the drugs.
They added that these systems allow manufacturers and others to track their products in the distribution chain.
Efforts to get comments from the Medicines Control Authority of Zimbabwe were fruitless as it did not respond to questions sent via email.