Medicine Availability, National Security Issue – Lolu Ojo

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– Says PSN set for memorable conference in Umuahia

Dr Lolu Ojo

The Nigerian nation must begin to see medicine availability as not just a health issue but a national security concern that must not be left to pharmacists and pharmaceutical companies alone, Dr Lolu Ojo, managing director/CEO, Merit Healthcare Limited and chairman, Conference Planning Committee (CPC), Abia 2017, has said.

Speaking with Pharmanews in an exclusive interview in his office in Lagos on the state of readiness of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN) to host pharmacists at the upcoming 2017 PSN conference holding in Umuahia, Abia State, early November, Dr Lolu Ojo said that a situation in which 80 per cent of Nigeria’s drug needs are imported while only 20 per cent are manufactured locally, in a largely unfavourable manufacturing environment, poses a great security challenge to the nation.

According to him, it was the imperative of bringing this issue to the consciousness of the nation, that prompted the choice of the 2017 PSN conference’s theme: “Medicine Availability and National Security”, adding that the nation needs to discuss how to grow the capabilities of local drug manufacturing to reduce dependence on foreign imports for its drug needs.

 

He warned that with the escalation of threats of war among countries in recent times, Nigeria may find itself in a precarious situation in terms of meeting its drug needs if any of the countries it depends upon for drugs suddenly cuts off supply.

The former national chairman of Association of Industrial Pharmacists of Nigeria (NAIP) stressed that for Nigeria to take care of the drug needs of its almost 200 million population, it has to take the issue of medicine availability seriously.

The CPC chairman also spoke on other pertinent issues regarding the 2017 conference.

Below is the interview:

Your committee has been very active preparing for the upcoming 2017 PSN conference. Based on all that has been done so far, what is the level of readiness of the PSN for the conference?

 

Thank you. We are ready. What we are doing now are day-to-day activities that will continue until the last day of the conference. However, in terms of the things that have been put in place for the conference…let me start from our host. The governor and the people of Abia State are ready to host us. We have received a formal letter from them to that effect, aside from the fact that the PSN president has visited the governor.

We also have a robust Local Organising Committee (LOC), led by an elder, Pharm. Albert Okpara, who has been working very hard to ensure the right things are in place.

In Lagos, we are already in conference mood. You already know that we had settled on the theme of the conference long ago, which is “Medicine Availability and National Security”. It is a social topic and has to be looked into from the social enterprise perspective, in the sense that if we have to take care of almost 200 million people, we cannot close our eyes to issues of medicine availability in Nigeria.

A situation whereby 80 per cent of our drug consumption is imported and only 20 per cent is produced locally is a great security issue. Even the 20 per cent produced locally is produced in a very stressful environment.  We therefore need to discuss how we can grow capabilities of local drug manufacturing.

Even though this is a topic that has been discussed over the years, this time around we are raising the consciousness. We need to point out that medicine availability should be seen as a security and health issue, in the sense that even recently when we had a Lassa fever outbreak, our government was running around looking for vaccine and there was no vaccine anywhere to use.

What happens if there is war and the country that was supplying you medicine is not a friendly nation? Who knew Donald Trump would become president of USA and begin to say “America first”? He is not ready to spend money on things or do things except they benefit America first.

Who knew we were going to be having the kind of disagreement we were having with South Africa? There was a time Nigeria was at the vanguard of fighting apartheid in South Africa. We spent money and other resources to lead that fight. But, today, do we have a good relationship with South Africa? Only few days ago, there were still reports of xenophobic attacks, with people being killed there.  If there is an escalation of that issue and more hostilities between the two countries and to hit us back the country says “we are not supplying you medicines”, what do we do if we depend on them?

We have to start seeing the issue of medicine availability as an issue not for pharmacists and pharmaceutical companies alone, but as a security issue. We have chosen a speaker who is very suitable because almost for the first time in a long while we have gone outside our profession to get a keynote speaker and that is Dr Andrew Nevins, who is a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

What we are trying to achieve is to focus on what the world is thinking. Look at India, that country has been able to produce enough for its people and is also the leading exporter of pharmaceuticals to other parts of the world, not only to Nigeria. And we can copy India. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Making pharmaceuticals is not rocket science because serious countries are already doing what we want to do and we are looking at how to do it at the conference from three perspectives.

The perspective of social enterprise is the first. We are also looking at it from the business perspective. Imagine if we could have Dangote Pharmaceuticals. Imagine if Aliko Dangote decided to make huge investments, like he has done in cement or refinery, in pharmaceuticals. Imagine having that kind of investment in the pharmaceutical sector to build the critical mass that can make the production of pharmaceuticals at lowest cost possible. If that happens we could be talking about something very good.

Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa will lead a discussion on that and to be part of that will be Dr (Mrs) Stella Okoli, Dr Fidelis Ayebae and other big time entrepreneurs.

We are also going to look at the regulatory perspective. This is the part that concerns government. We need to know what government is doing or can do to encourage production of drugs in Nigeria. Business regulation, I believe, should go with business promotion because that is why those government agencies in charge of regulation are there in the first place.

If those businesses are not there, what are they going to regulate? So, they have a responsibility to promote business and we have invited NAFDAC. We have invited the Nigerian Customs, the NDLEA, the Ministry of Trade…, and it is my hope that they will all come so that we can have a good discussion.

 

A major component of the PSN conference is exhibition by companies. What measures have you put in place to ensure exhibition at this conference is hitch-free and done in a decent manner?

Let me start by saying that our sponsors are our pride. They are the ones that add colour to our conference. In fact, without them, we cannot organise the conference. I know what their concerns are because I am part of them and I can tell you that we are reassuring them that they will get value for whatever money they invest in this conference.

The layout for the exhibition stand is ready. The challenge we have always had is that people wait till the last minute to make commitment. That is why I have been writing to everybody now and asking them to make the necessary commitment now.

We are also going to ensure that there is discipline. This is a scientific conference and we are going to ensure people comply with our rules. For those traders that usually come with all sorts of wares, we are not going to shut them out; but we will give them a place where they can do their own business and restrict them there. We are not going to allow the way the conference is usually turned to Oshodi market from the second day.

 

What about the plan for accommodation?

What I know is that those who pay for accommodation through PSN ahead will not struggle to get accommodation. That is what we always encourage.

Our people need to imbibe this culture. Our colleagues are at FIP right now. They had prepaid for their accommodation. You don’t go to FIP and start struggling for accommodation. We can do this here.

This same thing goes for registration. Once you pre-register, you will not be struggling for your conference bag and other things. The problem is late registration and we need to stop this practice.

 

Are there challenges you have encountered in planning for this conference and how have you been tackling them?

 

The first challenge is stereotype – the idea “that this is the way we do it” or “this is the way we have always done it” – but we are working on that. The second is the way our people wait and wait until the last minute before they start running around to make their commitments. I know there are other conferences people are involved in, like the ongoing FIP conference, but it is better to plan ahead.

 

Any unique feature at this conference?

Yes. We want the host community to feel our presence. That is why we are going to have an unserved community that has never had a full-time clinic or hospital service before. We shall take a hospital service to them for one day and serve about 500 people.

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