If you walk down busy market streets in Niger, you are likely to see dozens of kinds of medicine displayed in small hand carts or spread out on mats. Many people buy medicine from these street vendors, even though the products they sell are completely unregulated and sometimes even dangerous. Our Observer took photos to document this illicit market in medicine.
Lahcen B. (not his real name) is a telephone technician in Tahoua, a region in western Niger. Every day, he sees street vendors peddling medicine at cut-rate prices. He reached out to the France 24 Observers team to report this threat to public health.
In this photo, you can see medicine sold alongside other wares.
Many street vendors sell a mixture of both real and fake medicine. (All these photos were taken by our Observer.)
“Here, medicine is sold like sweets”
You can find almost any medicine for sale in the streets. I took photos of hand carts full of medicine. You can also buy medicine from street vendors or go to the market.
It’s clear that this medicine has not been kept in proper conditions. It’s exposed to the sun, even though temperatures can climb to a scorching 45° Celsius and there is dust all over.
Street vendors sell antibiotics, paracetamol and anti-inflammatories. The vendors sell them like sweets. They don’t require prescriptions. Instead, they act like pharmacists and explain to the customers how much to take. Generally, they tell the customers to take more than they should so they will buy more.
Street vendors often hawk a mix of real and fake medicine. Sometimes, Nigerien authorities seize large stocks of fake medicine during raids against the illegal medicines market, a big global problem that is especially rampant across the African continent. Lahcen says that this is much more than a public health crisis.
These vendors have no problem selling their wares for two main reasons: first of all, the medicine that you can buy in the street is much cheaper. In a pharmacy, a box of paracetamol might cost 400 francs CFA [equivalent to about 60 euro cents], while you can buy it for just 100 francs in the street.
Secondly, in the countryside or in small, rural villages, it is rare to find a pharmacy that keeps medicine in its recommended conditions by keeping it away from heat and humidity. So people are used to buying medicine in poor conditions and so they don’t see a big difference between pharmacies and street vendors.
In Niger, there haven’t been many campaigns to raise awareness about public health issues. There’s also a real lack of infrastructure. Many people don’t go to see a doctor when they get ill because that requires too much time and money. Instead, they’d go directly to a street vendor for medicine and advice.
Moreover, not all of the doctors here are great. I have friends who went to Algeria for medical treatment and the doctors there were shocked by all of the errors that doctors here had made in terms of diagnosing and treating illnesses.
Every so often, the authorities announce that they’ve seized tons of fake medicine. However, they don’t do anything on a daily basis to regulate the distribution and sale of unregulated medicine. This whole industry is also linked to corruption because you never know who is involved with this lucrative business.
According to research into the illegal medicine market in Niger, about 75 percent of medicine imported into the country ends up in the informal circuit. This rate is so high, in part, because of Niger’s porous borders but also because of a lack of personnel in the ministry that is supposed to regulate the medicine market.