After over 12 years of dilly-dallying, Nigeria’s Federal Executive Council (FEC) finally approved the joint venture agreement between the federal government and May & Baker Plc to produce vaccines in the country.
The agreement, which will run from 2017 to 2021, according to the Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole, who confirmed the deal after a recent FEC meeting, will give priority to local production of yellow fever vaccine.
The vaccine production will be handled by a company, Bio-vaccines Limited, which will be jointly owned by the federal government and May & Baker Plc. Under the agreement, the federal government will own 49 per cent of the venture and make equity contribution of 1.2 billion naira, while May & Baker Plc will own 51 per cent of the venture and make equity contribution of 1.3 billion naira.
Naturally, the federal government’s should be commended for this initiative, which is the consummation of a process that reportedly started far back as 2003. We consider the move a momentous one, primarily because it portends a major breakthrough in the fight against vaccine-preventable diseases and secondarily because it is a fulfillment of the yearnings of all well-meaning stakeholders in the health sector.
We must hasten to state, however, that the fact that it took the government over a decade to finally give approval for a project of such immense importance to the well-being of the citizenry and the nation as a whole is a worrisome reflection of how progressive initiatives are needlessly frustrated in the country because of bureaucratic ineptitude. This is perhaps why there has been so much motion and little movement in virtually all spheres of our national life.
If the government had not been foot-dragging on this project that needed its approval to commence all these years, the venture would, by now, undoubtedly be making invaluable contributions to not just the nation’s healthcare but the economy. It is therefore pertinent that government begins to see availability of health commodities like vaccines to Nigerians as not just a health but a security issue.
Nigeria’s total dependence on imported vaccines, as well as reliance on donor funds to make these vaccines available to the citizens, is not just an unacceptable practice but an embarrassing one. Consequently, the FG-May & Baker agreement must be seen as a first step towards a holistic review of our nation’s processes of ensuring our critical needs for vaccines are met consistently.
Interestingly, the process of vaccine production is not similar to rocket science in any way. Even the health minister confirmed that Nigeria was producing vaccines for yellow fever, small pox and rabies between 1940 and 1991. This was until the government stopped the production in 1991, supposedly to upgrade the facility – an exercise that was eventually abandoned and vaccine production remained suspended until the current May & Baker joint venture initiative.
We need not overstate the importance of vaccines, especially to a country like Nigeria. A recent report by the WHO indicates that vaccine-preventable diseases account for 40 per cent of all childhood deaths in the country; while, at least, 10 million deaths were prevented between 2010 and 2015 alone due to vaccinations delivered around the world. Also, the nation’s experience with vaccine-preventable diseases like the recent outbreak of Cerebrospinal Meningitis (CSM) serotype C, which killed over 800 people across 23 states of the country while the Nigerian government was scurrying around the world searching for the scarce vaccine for this condition should have served as a great lesson on the repercussion of negligence in matters relating to health.
This nation cannot afford to continue to be so exposed to disease outbreaks and being at the mercy of other nations for its vaccine needs. Moreover, recent reports have confirmed that international donors have already reduced funding support for vaccines to Nigeria with a plan to completely stop the support by 2022. It is therefore imperative for Nigeria to take its destiny as regards provision of vaccines in her own hand and come up with sustainable strategies to ensure the nation is able to constantly meet its vaccines needs. It is our view that local vaccine production must be a centerpiece of this strategy.
Most importantly, the Nigerian government must imbibe the practice of acting promptly and decisively on important national issues, especially ones that concern healthcare delivery.