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Ivorians' Health Threatened By Street Medicine


"Street Medicine Kills" is the new slogan of a campaign to fight the sale of illegal, ineffective, counterfeit or stolen medicinal drugs being sold in stores and market stalls throughout Ivory Coast. But despite the effort, the market for illicit drugs is thriving.

In the Roxy market of the Adjame neighborhood in Abidjan, named after a former movie theater that went bankrupt years ago, women in their 40s now sit outside, selling rows and rows of what they say is medicine, for as little as 20 cents a bottle of pills, blood transfusion kit, or packet of tablets.

This woman, Fatoumata Kone, says she has everything to cure headaches, malaria, diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases, typhoid fever and hypertension - many of the common sicknesses in Ivory Coast.

She says buyers often come with prescriptions and she fills them with her products even though she does not have the education that would qualify her to do so.

Some women have tablets that they claim help alleviate AIDS, placed next to the usual array of products to cure sexual impotence or increase virility.

Another popular item is called Medicament Sur Place, literally translated as On the Spot Medicine, a huge white round tablet, of unknown origin. It is given to people suffering from a throbbing headache and chills - the first signs of malaria.

Another vendor says her clients are not only the desperately poor, but people with money as well. She says after the war in Ivory Coast drugs from pharmacies are just too expensive for sick people, let alone poor, sick people.

One such buyer is this 56-year-old man. He says he has many children, too many to count, and too many for his pocketbook. He says his pharmacy is here, in the streets. He says he thinks most of these drugs are cheaper because they come from places like Nigeria or Ghana that produce copies of western drugs.

He says he is well aware giving these drugs to his children might be dangerous, but adds he cannot afford legitimate medications and feels he has to do something for his children.

In a different area of the Adjame market is a somewhat more upscale version of the street drugs, a parallel market where stolen drugs from private and public pharmacies are sold. The women doing the selling here are younger, often the wives and girlfriends of drugstore employees or government workers doing the stealing.

Here people refuse to be interviewed. The prices appear higher, but are still much lower than in pharmacies. Some of them are well past their expiration date. But business is brisk; much more so than in a spotless pharmacy store across the street.

There, the pharmacist is alone, idling behind big government posters in the windows, warning "Beware, Street Medicine Kills".

Pharmacist Gidas Gbassi is not blaming people for buying on-the-street drugs. He says they have to do something to survive. Since there is no health insurance in Africa and poverty is growing, he says it is probably going to be a problem for a long time.

But the head of the Health Ministry's so-called Sanitary Police, Michel Deli Gueu, does not accept such excuses. He says poverty or not, the use of unknown medicine is a real public-health danger. He explains most people buying street drugs might not realize they are putting their lives in danger, and making their health worse rather than better.

He says a the government will soon launch a crackdown on the street markets, zooming in on traffickers and those who establish, what he calls, the parallel and dangerous networks.

For the time being, many pharmacies have resorted to selling medicine without requiring prescriptions, boosting their sales a little. But these western-style drugstores are facing stiff competition from Chinese medicine, which like other Chinese products is usually about three times cheaper than those from the West.

Wearing a white blouse and thick white glasses in a store with boxes of Chinese medications, Suzanna Lee, explains her traditional, plant-based medicine is more affordable.

She says Chinese understand what it is like to be poor. She says people come to her and through an interpreter describe their ailments and she usually has what they need.

But there are many residents of Abidjan who cannot afford the Chinese medicine or the street drugs. Many of the poorest trek back to their native village to get treated by a local medicine man and his concoctions of traditional medicine. Many of them never return.

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