Antoine Lawson LIBREVILLE, Dec 14 (IPS) - Street vendors that ply
their trade in African cities are routinely the target of criticism.
Passersby grouse at being made to step over their wares, displayed on
pavements. Local governments grumble that they're nothing more than a
But, if you discount the fact that they may raise the blood pressure
of city officials, vendors aren't generally viewed as posing a
serious danger to public health. Not, that is, unless you buy
medicines and other forms of treatment from them as the citizens of
Gabon are discovering.
Take the case of Ursule Bouassa.
"I bought vials of placenta at the market to make my hair grow, but
three months later I noticed that the tiniest tug of a comb made my
hair come out. I figured out that the product was no good...Ever
since, I've had painful sores on my scalp," she said in an interview
in the capital, Libreville.
Pierre Gotta tells a similar story.
"I'm not healing because according to the specialists, the lightening
creams I bought at the market changed the structure of my skin," he
notes. "I went to see all the dermatologists, but nothing worked."
The high cost of drugs has prompted many Gabonese to start buying
medicines from market sellers and vendors who sell smuggled and
counterfeit treatments that are often cheaper that those available
over the counter.
However, these drugs may have a dire effect on the health of persons
who are not fully informed about the medicines they're buying.
Certain drugs offered for sale have expired others lack the active
ingredients that are necessary for healing.
"Cases of gastric and renal dysfunction, stomach problems, several
poisoning deaths...were seen recently at the hospital after people
took questionable medications not prescribed by a doctor," notes
Isabelle Mboumba, a pharmacist at a Libreville hospital.
Adds pediatrician Obame Moyo, "The sale of counterfeit medication in
the markets does, for the most part, limit prices. But, it engenders
a whole series of risks and secondary complications for
health...especially among children."
"If people don't have a prescription to buy medications, especially
antibiotics, which each have different precise dosage requirements,
they prefer to self-medicate even if it brings with it a raft of
complications," he adds.
Indiscriminate use of drugs is also causing bacteria to become
resistant to certain medicines.
"For two years we have treated cases of herpes and hepatitis, many of
which were complicated by contraindicated antibiotics. What we find
most alarming is that now, many bacteria are resistant to current
antibiotics," Daniel Fernandes, a physician at a private clinic in
Libreville, told IPS.
Gabonese law stipulates that only pharmacists and authorized agents
have the right to import and sell medicines. But, health workers
argue that this legislation has not been adequately enforced.
"Without a rigorous policy to control the sale of medications by
street hawkers or (in)...markets in Gabon, the Gabonese authorities
have made all kinds of abuses possible during the past twenty years,"
Emile Mboustsou, a doctor at the Libreville Hospital Centre, said in
an interview with IPS. "Vendors of all sorts of illegal medications
profit from this breach, jeopardizing the health of our citizens."
Last month, the mayor of Libreville, Andre Dieudonne Berre, placed a
ban on the sale of drugs in markets and by street vendors.
"The sale of counterfeit drugs by street vendors is illegal and
harmful to people's health. Only duly registered pharmacies and
pharmaceutical warehouses are authorized to sell prescription drugs,"
he noted, in a press release.
The Gabonese Association of Pharmacists has also tried to raise
awareness of the dangers of buying medications from street sellers.
But with some of the medicines offered by vendors selling for half
the price asked in pharmacies, the likelihood of Berre being able to
stop this trade appears small. According to medical sources in
Libreville, the counterfeit drug industry in Africa nets between 10
and 15 billion dollars a year.
The situation is complicated by the fact that many Gabonese don't
have the option of buying drugs from legitimate sources.
"Health services are generally not widely available, since 46 percent
of Gabon's population lives more than an hour away from the nearest
treatment center. In rural areas, this proportion is 86 percent,"
Samuel Ndong, a nurse, told IPS.
"In such a situation people buy the medications that are available to
them, and those are the ones they get in the street which are
counterfeit," he added.
In 1987, the Ministry of Health with assistance from the United
Nations Children's Fund drew up a list of essential medicines.
These drugs were supposed to be provided free of charge in public
hospitals and other treatment centres.
In practice, however, this never occurred leaving many to take the
dubious route of buying drugs from street sellers.
At present, there are several hundred medicine vendors in and around
Libreville, which is home to 650,000 people - most of them poorly
educated. According to estimates by the Ministry of Planning drawn up
in 2004, nearly 350,000 inhabitants of Gabon's three biggest cities
Libreville, Port-Gentil, and Franceville live below the poverty
line of a dollar a day.
The vendors never reveal where their supplies come from. But, there
appears to be a cure for every ailment.
"You can buy packets of several medications in tablet or gel form,
antibiotics, syrups with no active ingredient, and even...tablets
that girls sometimes take to induce clandestine abortions," says a
Libreville midwife. (END/2004)