Successive governments at all levels had raised the issue of opening local production of vaccines many times that never saw light of the day. However, with the outbreak of meningitis and the recent call by health workers for vaccine production in the country, the government may not turn a new leaf given its antecedents, Odimegwu Onwumere writes
What will it cost Nigeria to produce vaccines?
“This Meningitis outbreak shows that the Ministry of Health has no solid plan of action to help prevent such widespread outbreaks. It is disheartening that here in Nigeria, we wait until there is an epidemic or an outbreak before we start running helter-skelter to try to manage it,” cried out Dr. Nini Iyizoba, a contributor to national and international health discourses.
Iyizoba’s thoughts came when over 8,000 cases of Cerebro Spinal Meningitis, CSM, and about 800 deaths were reported in Nigeria by April 17 2017, amidst were 336 children. This precarious disease that was reported late 2016 with the authorities showing lackadaisical attitude, escalated this year, especially in the North-west and North-central zones, compelling the once ostensible lame-duck authorities to pronounce it as contagion in six states of Katsina, Kebbi, Zamfara, Niger, Sokoto and Yobe – informed the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN).
According to science, meningitis is a serious disease in which there is inflammation of the meninges, caused by viral or bacterial infection, and marked by intense headache and fever, sensitivity to light, and muscular rigidity; and most affected age group is 5-14 years of age. The source added that those in whose hand it’s to handle such a case were motiveless given that, “Meningitis is quite common in sub-Saharan Africa and countries like Nigeria, Senegal, Niger, Chad, Benin, Mali, Burkina Faso etc which make up the ‘Meningitis Belt’.”
Apart from the 2016-2017 presence of the disease, health establishments educated that this is not the first time that the country was experiencing meningitis. “In 1996 alone, Meningitis killed more than 11,000 people in Nigeria. In 2009, almost 600 people died. In fact, just two years ago, a meningitis epidemic affected almost 10,000 people and killed over 1,000 people in Nigeria. And now, again, in 2017, it’s happening all over again,” enthused Iyizoba, adding, “How can we not be prepared? Why should we be caught unawares? It is occurrences like these that make people theorise about the lack of empathy for the poor or average Nigerian life.”
Failed promises on vaccines
Experts have judged that if there were local vaccine production plants in the country, it is apparent that the number of the affected would not have risen as drugs would be at doorsteps to help in the outbreak. But over the years the authorities have deafened people’s ears that they would be building drug plants and manufacture vaccines in Nigeria that never come to be. Hence, Nigerians have taken the government’s overtures on production of vaccines in the country aftermath of the epidemic as a tale by moonlight.
Many believed that what the authorities have always preferred was what it did recently: Buy and share drugs. In the voice of Iyizoba, “About 500,000 doses of Meningitis C vaccine have been distributed to affected areas in the North for immediate vaccination. Approximately, another 800,000 doses are being expected from United Kingdom to help support the ongoing vaccination programmes. That brings the total to about 1.3m vaccine doses for a country that has a population of over 180m people.”
In several occasions, individuals and organisations such as the Association of Medical Laboratory Scientists of Nigeria (AMLSN) have pleaded with the federal government to redirect its focus on local production of vaccines. But the government wouldn’t do this given the many years it had been clamouring for erecting vaccines and drug production plants in the country.
The government would always prefer to import vaccines even when there were suggestions that the Federal Vaccine Laboratory, Yagba, can help Nigeria vaccines-wise go a long way if reinvested in. Before its comatose condition, this outfit produced vaccines that were sent to foreign countries.
Many failed calls on local vaccines
In July 2013, the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), had called on the federal government to gear up in producing domestic vaccines, but that call seemed unattended to.
NMA’s call was in order to curtail the sprinting of hepatitis in the country, which was viral. It was the then President of the association, Dr. Osahon Enabulele who made the call on the occurrence of the 2013 World Hepatitis Day. It is evident that the call died immediately it was made.
Even when Dr. Enabulele made it known at the occasion that hepatitis virus A, B, C, D and E were accountable for the millions of death in the country, because they caused sensitive and unremitting infections and inflammation of the liver, the government did not bellyache.
Failed attempts to produce vaccines
In June 2012, ex-President Goodluck Jonathan had approved the local production of vaccines with an aim tailored towards everyday accessibility of routine vaccines in the country. While Jonathan might have meant well for the health sector with his government taking-off with Biovaccines Nigeria Limited, which was a joint project company between Federal Government and May and Baker Nigeria Plc, that project did not meet the direction it was intended to reach. If it had reached, the health sector and the government wouldn’t be gasping for air on where to get vaccines for the control of outbreak of meningitis in the country as they are doing today.
At the opening of the Health Canada-NAFDAC Mentorship Launch aimed at building the Agency’s capacity in the area of vaccine regulation on March 26, 2013, the then Director General of National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Dr. Paul Orhii said that the country was ready to start local production of routine immunisation vaccines for tuberculosis, hepatitis B, diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis/whooping cough (DPT), polio, measles and yellow fever. With these words by Orhii – “We want to start manufacturing vaccines. We are starting on a right footing of vaccine production in Nigeria by beginning with capacity building of NAFDAC officers” – up till now, there is nothing on ground to show for the mouthing.
From the month of June 2012, there was expectancy that Nigeria would have a world-class vaccine plant where the production of Yellow Fever vaccines would be fad in 18 months, but this expectation also bit the dust.
Lying on vaccines
Opinions were that the government has been toying with the hope of Nigerians of benefitting from a well designed local vaccines production, given the statement by the MD/CEO, May and Baker Plc, Mr. Nnamdi Okaforthat could not have come to pass till date.
“Our job is to revive that entity using our knowledge, expertise and resources to produce and distribute vaccines in Nigeria once again and consequently end the era of 100 per cent dependence on foreign vaccine producers to immunise our citizens against vaccine preventable diseases that ravage our society.”
Okafor made it known that the requisite industrial capability had been attained. But Nigerians have been wondering why they still gasp for local vaccines today, if that target has been met. Hear Okafor again, “Our major priority now is to commence local vaccines production as soon as possible. The Biovaccines business plan is being reviewed and will be presented to the Board as soon the latter is constituted. We plan to commence construction of a new vaccine plant at the new site in Ota, Ogun State with a view to starting production of Yellow Fever vaccines within 18 months.”
Millions of money that never produced vaccines
The initial plan for the vaccines plant in Ota was to give hope in Nigeria that there would be enough and quality vaccines that are also secure and inexpensive, and create job opportunities for Nigerians.
Okafor even captured it thus: “By going into local vaccine production, Nigeria will be putting the health security of her citizens in its hands. Immunisation is a national health security issue. No country can afford to leave the health security of her citizens in the hands of foreign organisations.
“The venture would also save Nigeria substantial savings in foreign exchange and logistics costs of vaccine importation. Currently, the federal government spends over N6 billion to import vaccines every year, excluding what is imported by states and local governments.
“Local vaccine production will ensure Nigeria’s participation in an industry that is at the cutting edge of science by helping to transfer technology to Nigeria and build capacity for primary healthcare delivery.”
It is hoped that the federal government would stop making further overtures on local production of vaccines but just go into action.
By Odimegwu Onwumere