There's a shelf sitting in the pharmacy section of Massey Street Children's Hospital in Lagos that's stacked with medicines that can be the difference between life and death for just about anyone, especially children.
Drug aid is saving underprivileged from Nigeria's healthcare nightmare
Nigeria's healthcare infrastructure is a cry for help, and some people are responding.
On a good day, this seven feet tall shelf has artemether and lumefantrine, a common malaria drug; astymin, a multi-vitamin essential for proper growth and development; saline, used to treat dehydration; and ventolin nebules, a quick relief drug to ease breathing problems.
It also houses high profile drugs like oxyurea which is used to treat chronic myeloid leukemia, certain types of cancer, and pivotal to the treatment of sickle cell anemia.
These drugs are all free of charge for Massey's patients.
Over 86 million Nigerians, nearly half of the country's estimated population, are living in extreme poverty, on less than N779 ($1.90) per day, according to the World Poverty Clock.
This means for anyone in this affected class, or even outside it, buying something as important as medicines can sink them further into poverty, if at all they can afford to buy.
And this data point makes that shelf sitting at Massey a welcome relief for over 5,000 people that have directly benefited from it since it first appeared there in 2019.
"All our patients, the very first place they go is the free section," Ajayi Abimbola, the hospital’s head of pharmacy department, tells Pulse.
Massey caters primarily to children 12 years and below, and gets a regular supply of free pharmaceutical drugs from the Lagos State government, but the high foot traffic at the hospital means medicines are always in hot demand, and that shelf fills an inevitable supply gap.
This shelf, of similar shape and size, sits in another corner nearly 40 kilometers away inside Alimosho General Hospital, just waiting for free drugs to be plucked off it by low-income patients.
The existence of those shelves stationed at Massey and Alimosho is the work of Drug Aid Africa, a non-governmental organisation that commenced operations in 2019 with the sole aim of easing the burden on sick, vulnerable Nigerians as much as possible.
"We're always there for the medicines, nothing extra. People that need help with medicines, we find them, we support them," Programme Manager at Drug Aid Africa, Oluseyi Sanyaolu, tells Pulse.
Nigeria's National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) was established in 2004 to provide easy access to healthcare for all Nigerians at an affordable cost.
But its former chairman, Prof. Usman Yusuf, revealed in 2018 that the NHIS had been able to cover only three million Nigerians in over a decade of operation, hampered by massive corruption and mismanagement.
This failure leaves tens of millions of Nigerians exposed to the wilderness of the already dilapidated Nigerian healthcare system, and the price of that failure can be expensive and deadly.
Drug Aid Africa kicked off operations two years ago simply to help low-income Nigerians sort their basic, yet unaffordable, healthcare problems, hence the initial partnership with Massey that later extended to Alimosho.
The group's intervention has expanded over the years to provide consistent support for four orphanages, three elderly care homes, and two other NGOs doing the leg work of reaching low-income grassroots communities to support their health needs.
There's a sizable drug aid box with its own revered corner inside Tunji Adebayo Foundation Motherless and Abandoned Babies Home, Lagos courtesy of Drug Aid Africa.
Unlike the supplies to the hospitals, the content of this box is a bit more tailored to the needs of kids, with over-the-counter drugs like Vitamin C, paracetamol, blood tonic, cough syrup, and deworming tablets.
The existence of this box, which has been refilled three times in eight months, has reduced the foundation's expenditure, easing its purse strings to cover other aspects of care for vulnerable children.
It's the same situation at Masc Care Home, an elderly care service provider in Abule-Egba, Lagos, run as a social enterprise.
Accommodation is free, but residents, or their families, still have to pay for other services like feeding, laundry, weekly therapy, and, of course, medical needs.
"This partnership reduces the financial demands on what we can do. The more we have, the more we're able to help the people that we have, and people that cannot afford care," Busola Shogbamimu, the care home's CEO, tells Pulse.
Alabiamo Foundation, a Lagos-based NGO combating maternal mortality in Nigeria; and Jakin Initiatives, another Lagos-based NGO running educational, economic, and health interventions for the underprivileged, have also become recent partners of Drug Aid Africa.
Both NGOs have reached thousands of low-income patients, primarily women and children, many of whom are now direct beneficiaries of the free medicines they're receiving.
Drug Aid Africa started as a simple objective to help people who are stuck in health institutions just because they cannot afford to pay for basic services.
The organisation cultivated relationships with its numerous partners by simply reaching out first to say "How can we help you with free no-strings-attached medicines?"
There's no special consideration for how they were chosen, it's almost random; any organisation in obvious need of that sort of aid is the right fit.
Drug Aid Africa's own supplies are usually obtained through cash donations, courtesy the kindness of friends, and occasional material partnerships with pharmaceutical companies.
But this is not always enough, and the NGO and its beneficiaries agree there's more to be done.
"Partners send in lists, but usually we can't cover all the things on the list. Or sometimes you cover everything, but the quantity cannot last for long.
"We wish we can do more to increase the quantity of what we get, and get to more places.
"Funding is not coming as much but we're seeking and hoping we'll find," Sanyaolu says.
Buretrol, a type of infusion device, is quite an important IV fluid administration set used to administer a very specific amount of fluid to patients.
Pediatricians prefer it over the regular set which can easily accidentally administer more than is necessary for patients, in this case newborns and young kids.
So the accuracy of administration makes buretrol essentially a hot commodity on the shelf, and one of the first to run out of stock.
When Massey recently requested 100 buretrol sets, only 20 could be supplied because of limited resources.
"We hope they can do more, especially in that area of buretrol," Massey's Abimbola says.
The children's hospital also recently had to reject a batch of medicines Drug Aid Africa was offering to donate because they were a few weeks away from expiry.
Disposing the medicines, once they reached the expiry date, would likely cost the hospital more money, hence the decision to not house them at the pharmacy at all.
Sanyaolu says the offer was made, with full disclosure, because a retail pharmaceutical company wanted to donate the drugs, but Drug Aid Africa also had to reject the batch after Massey would not accommodate them.
"Some organisations only want to donate what is close to expiry, but we don't receive anything that's within six months of expiry," he says.
Millions of Nigerians that live below the poverty line, and even above it, are victims-in-waiting of the depressingly declining state of Nigeria's healthcare system.
Providing aid with free medicines is only a small part of easing the difficulties they face accessing care, but it is significant and can be life-changing.
Drug Aid Africa hopes to do more for its partners and grow enough to expand outside Lagos, but the organisation does not think it can do everything on its own or make the problems completely vanish.
"There are so many other people that need help.
"You will not be able to do everything, but you'll be able to do one part and other people will pick up another part.
"When everybody picks up small pieces, eventually the whole will be fine," Sanyaolu says.
Medicines are quite expensive, especially for low-income patients; and in a country with a crumbling healthcare system, aid will always be a necessary plug.
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