Thursday, 16 August 2012

Chemists in Kenya thrive on self-medication habit

By Bedah Mengo
Aug. 16 (Xinhua) -- While unwell, most Kenyans are often at crossroad whether to visit a doctor and pay for consultation fee or walk into a chemist and ask for drugs they believe would cure them.

Many always opt for the latter, a practice known as self- medication. The habit has become the norm for thousands of Kenyans. It does not matter what kind of illness one is suffering from or their income bracket, many people just walk into a chemist and buy drugs that cured a previous medical condition that had similar symptoms.Others, on the other hand, first consult pharmacists, who prescribe drugs before they buy after being told symptoms. The habit that is widespread across the East African nation has presented massive opportunities to businesspersons running chemists.

Many of chemist owners are cashing in on the practice that has become the standard procedure for most sick Kenyans. In the capital Nairobi, a survey in the central business district and in suburbs indicated that pharmacists are doing booming business.At one drugstore along Moi Avenue in the city center on Saturday evening, dozens of people stand at the counter jostling for attention of attendants. "I have a persistent cough," a man tells a female attendant dressed in a white overcoat. "For how long have you been coughing? " she asks with concern. "Is it a dry or wet cough? Are you feeling any irritation in the throat?" she adds as the man answers amid bouts of coughs.The young woman tells the man she would sell him Amoxill capsules and a cough syrup. The drugs cost 6 U.S dollars. But confronted with the price, the man bargains and they settle at 5.5 dollars. He pays and thereafter saunters out of the drugstore.

Other customers at the pharmacy engage in similar antics, with some of them going for specific drugs while others seeking the attendants' advice. Of the about 20 people, only about three have prescription scripts, indicating that they had first sought medical advice."There is a lot of money in selling medicine," Martin Muli, who runs a drugstore in Umoja estate on the east of Nairobi, said on Sunday. Muli noted that nearly all sick Kenyans first turn to chemists whenever they have ailments."For most people, their first stop is at the chemist when they are sick. They will only go to hospital or seek doctor's advice when the sickness persists," he said.

The pharmacist observed that most of his customers rarely come with prescriptions scripts. "They know the kind of drugs they want. Some of them, however, tell us their symptoms then we advise them on the drugs to buy. It is a win-win situation for both of us," he said. Most of the drugs that are much-sought include those to treat stomach ailments, headache, flu, cough, malaria, asthma and birth control pills."Our busiest times are always in the evening when people are returning home from work. Most of them buy drugs for headaches, flu and stomach ailments," he said.

Prices of the drugs in Muli's store range from 0.11 dollars for paracetamol to 14 dollars for asthma medicine. "Most of those who buy asthma drugs come with prescription scripts. Others just replenish the drugs they use," he said. In a day, Muli noted that he goes home with at least 45 dollars. "This is the minimum I have made since my business picked up about two years ago. Sometimes during the weekend when most people do not go to work, the sales double," he said.

Good prospects in the business have made him open three more branches, two in the estate and one in a neighboring residential area. "They are all performing well. Pharmacy business is not like any other since it has no season. People get sick all the time," he said. While he acknowledges that self-medication is not a good habit and is against their code of practice, Muli noted that the practice is entrenched in the Kenyan society because most people cannot afford medical services."Most of those who seek medical attention when they are sick are the working class who have insurance cover. The rest, who are the majority, do not. They self-medicate and buy drugs over the counter," he said.

Ann Asembo, who is self-employed, noted she does not remember the last time she visited a hospital."Visiting a hospital is expensive. There, you have to buy a card and pay consultation fee, which for some hospitals is as high as 30 dollars. This cannot compare with buying drugs over the counter," she said. Luckily, for her and many other Kenyans, the habit has worked and keeps them going. "The thing is that you identify a registered chemist where you can get professional advice and buy drugs," she said.

However, some of the businessmen who run the drug stores are quacks and give wrong advice, thus endangering lives. There have been efforts by authorities in Kenya to weed them out. Kenya's Ministry of Health has blamed self-medication for resistant to several drugs in the East African nation. The ministry notes the habit has particularly led to resistance of malaria drugs increasing health costs and stalling efforts to ensure near-zero deaths from the killer disease by 2015.A recent survey by Ipsos-Synovate indicated that over half of pharmacies in the East African nation sell medicine across the counter without asking for prescription.  (Xinhua)

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