A team of young men hurled piles of boxes into a large pit at the Medical Stores’ compound in Freetown. Vitamin supplements, bottles of children’s cough syrup, dextrose drips and parasite medicine among other things, spilled out in heaps. Everything was doused with gasoline and set ablaze.
Small glass jars containing more medicines and nutritional supplements were hurled at rocks and smashed to bits. Everything, all 500 million Leones worth, was either counterfeit or expired pharmaceuticals.
The pile represented what had been confiscated during a two-month period, according to officials at the Pharmaceutical Board of Sierra Leone.
Most of the counterfeit products are produced in China and India, according to James Komeh, the Chief Inspector of the Pharmacy Board, who said they find their way into the country through the porous borders along Guinea and Liberia, countries which have no pharmacy boards.
Consuming counterfeit drugs can be harmful for two reasons: consumers do not get cured for the ailments they have, and they stand the risk of being poisoned since the contents of substances aren’t regulated.
Distributors penetrate Sierra Leone’s borders at night bringing with them products unregistered with the state pharmacy board. When such materials are seized, they are tested at a newly opened lab in Freetown for the correct doses of the chemicals they are supposed to contain. Those containing the correct doses are put on the open market and registered with the board. Products deemed expired, or not containing the proper ingredients are confiscated and later destroyed.
Distributors can be fined as well as shops that shelf the products. In some instances violating businesses can have their license revoked.
“Most of them (drug stores) have good drugs,” Komeh said of drug stores in Freetown.
“Up to 50 percent of drugs in developing countries are fake,” said Dr Felicitas Zawaira, a representative of the World Health Organization.
She stressed that pharmacy boards could not do everything and the problem of counterfeit pharmaceuticals relied on the vigilance of the population.
Back at the Medical Stores’ compound in Freetown, the flames died down and a horseshoe ring of cinders remained curled around the pit. Charred plastic and twisted tin were strewn about and small brown medicine bottles emptied of their contents lay strewn about.
The pit waited like a hungry mouth ready for the next batch of counterfeit pharmaceuticals to be confiscated and destroyed.