As city dwellers head upcountry this month, and our small towns and villages swell, an extra cause of death lurks for some in unregistered pharmacies peddling sometimes fake drugs.
For some of our travellers this August will get sick, and woe betide those who get caught in a net of our own making in supporting illegitimate pharmacies.
As it is, the simplest antibiotic can transform the course of an infection, arresting it before it moves to a full infection of the blood, and death.
But replace it with a fake pressed pill empty of any active ingredient and any patient is left behind by a century, battling disease without medicine.
The same goes for consumers caught short of key drugs in containing blood pressure, diabetes, heart conditions, and a swathe of lifestyle diseases that can claim victims’ lives at speed when left unmedicated.
It hardly bears comment that it takes a particular type of money maker to go for this as a means to a livelihood. But, for some, the challenges of living at peace with themselves as they peddle death are overridden by economics— pharmacies are a lucrative business.
In Nairobi, a pharmacy will typically reap Sh4,000 to Sh20,000 a day in profits, and for some, up to Sh50,000 a day, or over Sh1m a month.
Pharmacies in small towns and villages can’t command the profits reaped in our capital city, but it’s still a business where need drives spending, and real need arises.
Yet we can be our own worst enemies in keeping an illegal network going that sometimes knocks us extremely hard as individuals.
A prominent magazine editor once explained it to me as a ‘Robin Hood’ culture of robbing the rich to pay the poor, which includes our widespread belief that rules and licences ate a trial that we barely support.
As citizens and consumers, we not only use illegal pharmacies and other operations, but have an attitude of resistance to the efforts to regulate them: always suspicious of the authorities, always convinced that their aims are dishonourable and their methods more so: we don’t rate ‘the establishment’.
And, thus, our illegal pharmacies, and our fake drugs too, survive, and keep causing deaths. In 2015, we gained a new law that set a fine of up to Sh1m on illegal pharmacies.
The reality has been different. When the Pharmacy and Poisons Board earlier this year reported 72 illegal pharmacies found and prosecuted, the penalties, in reality, ranged from fines of just Sh30,000 to Sh180,000.
Set against the profits borne of pharmacies, these are figures that are inconsequential.
The board has lately taken new steps, however, in Kajiado, to start prosecuting the suppliers of illegal pharmacies.
Making it a bit more expensive, though intermittent prosecutions, to supply illegal operations, might help a little more still.
But at base, the real supporters of illegal pharmacies are we consumers ourselves. We participate in supporting our nation’s medical drugs underworld.
As it is, every registered pharmacist must display a sticker with a banner code. It can be checked any time by sending the pharmacist’s code to SMS service 21021 to check the business’s authenticity.
So don’t get caught buying medicines in a pharmacy that isn’t registered: for once that retailer is living outside the law, and the price for getting it wrong can be a life.