By Lamin Cham
Since the beginning of the new year, more than one hundred pharmacies or drugstores across the country have been ordered to close and drugs removed from them allegedly on the orders of the Medicine Control Agency and the Pharmacy Council.
Scores of the aggrieved operators who spoke to The Standard questioned the rationale behind the decision describing it as an act of highhandedness that has caused heavy losses to the affected operators and rendering many jobless.
According to the affected persons, the closures were done by inspectors from the Medicine Control Agency whose role they claimed should have just stopped at checking the quality of drugs and not registration matters which they said should be the role of the Pharmacy Council.
“But since the same persons serve on both bodies, there is little surprise there is no visible separation of their roles,” one of the affected operators said.
They further stated that the reason given for the closures, non-proper registration, is irrational as any change in the regulation should have been adequately disseminated to the actors and a process started to get them regularized. They said that’s better than a hash and rushed approach that resulted in the loss of revenue for the affected operators.
Another source said the nature of the composition of the Pharmacy Council and the Medicine Control Agency smack of double standards. “The chairman of the Pharmacy Council for instance is a Principal inspector in The Medicine Control Agency which gives him unlimited powers and possible conflict of interest since some members of the regulatory bodies are license holders themselves who rented their licenses to mainly foreign importers.
“How can you regulate fairly between operators some of whom are using your own licenses,” one aggrieved operator queried.
He also alleged that since the closure of the drug stores, the regulatory bodies have introduced an additional license that now enables one to hold two retail and one wholesale licenses as opposed to the past when one can have a maximum of only two licenses.
“Are these new licenses authorized and by who?” one asked.
Meanwhile The Standard contacted a seasoned professional familiar with the issues who averred that the drastic decision to close drug stores across the country because of alleged non-proper registration may appear to be in order but it should be put in proper perspective.
“The first thing is that these groups of people were classified as Category C licenses which was linked to the Primary Health Care System that enabled remote communities far from health posts to access basic drugs like Paracetamol, Cough syrups etc. Though the license does not allow them to extend them to operate drug stores but the prompt order to close them has not only impacted on the revenue of the operators but the communities they are in will immediately feel their absence. So the lesson to learn is that every change should be managed and gradual instead of a radical approach,” he said.
According to our resource person, the next logical question that should be asked is whether an inventory has been done on the drugs seized from the closed drug stores and where they are kept.
“Are the high authorities at the Ministry of Health aware of the whereabouts of the drugs seized and how much are they and when are they expiring?” he asked.
An independent observer who spoke to The Standard advised the Ministry of Health and the new government to swiftly look into the importation, registration and regulation of drugs and pharmacies in the country to avoid another crisis in the health sector.
“The whole environment needs to be checked because where you have regulators of a sector being business operators themselves, there cannot be transparency. There is a general feeling that the whole business revolves around few powerful individuals who are either in the regulatory bodies or their favoured circle of friends, putting many genuine Gambians out of the business,” he observed.
Meanwhile The Standard for two days tried to get comments from both the Medicine Control Agency and the Pharmacy Council without success.
Essa Marena, the chairman of the Pharmacy Council when contacted said his office has a protocol to be followed before media interviews are granted. He refereed us to the Medicine Control Agency whose head Makiew Janneh initially accepted to talk to The Standard provided we call before coming.
The Standard made repeated calls and sent texts but she would not respond though a colleague of hers said she was willing and waited for our calls before going ahead to attend to other pressing matters such as an imminent international conference her office is involved in preparing.
The Standard will be happy to hear from both the Council and the Agency on this matter.