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Needy Kenyans turn to harmful food and drugs

Health & Science
 Tough times: Working families buying spoilt foods at discounted prices

Pushed by hard economic times, Nairobi residents have turned to desperate, but dangerous short cuts to meet basic needs including food and medicine. Data collected in Nairobi County shows the cost of medicines grossly exaggerated by up to 33 times over international market prices.

To cope, the sick are turning to street medicines, buy incomplete doses, delay purchasing drugs, or go without treatment.

To survive in Nairobi research shows even working families are buying spoilt foods such as greening, sprouting and bruised potatoes at discounted prices.

Greening sprouting or bruised potatoes, food experts warn should not be consumed because they contain a poison (glycoalkaloids) that causes moderate to serious health problems.

A survey carried out in open air food markets in Dagoretti, Westlands, Embakasi, Kamukunji, found spoilt potatoes, normally sold for replanting, are now being purchased at a discount for human consumption.

Similarly, responding to the growing desperation, Nairobi is reporting an explosion of illegal drug outlets and street medicine. A study published by the Ministry of Health and the University of Nairobi last week shows the poor of Nairobi can hardly afford life-saving medicines due to “grossly exaggerated prices.”

The study investigated the cost of essential medicines in 45 drug outlets including pharmacies, clinics and hospitals including Dandora, Eastleigh, Huruma, Imara Daima, Jogoo Road, Kahawa West, Kangemi, Kariobangi, Kasarani/Mwiki, Kawangware, Dagoretti, Kayole, Mathare, South B, and Umoja.

The team, reporting in the journal Pharmacy, says medicines are overpriced with the lowest generics and innovator brands costing three and 33 times the international reference prices.

Since 2017, Health CS Sicily Kariuki has repeatedly promised the government would regulate drug prices to ensure they do not exceed international market prices. This is yet to happen.

Because of the high cost, the researchers say Nairobi residents have categorised diseases into those that should be attended to urgently and those that can wait or be ignored.

“We are seeing a lot of clients asking for only a part of the dose they can afford but even fail to come for the rest,” Martha Kamau, a pharmacy attendant at Pipeline in Nairobi said.

Pharmacy and Poisons Board had earlier warned Kenyans against buying medicines from street vendors. “The board cautions the public against unscrupulous vendors hawking medicines outside registered premises,” it said in a statement.

But a report presented in March 2019 by Kenya Medical Research Institute at a conference in Tanzania showed this has not discouraged illegal pharmacies.

On April 28, 2019, researchers at the Department of Food Science, Nutrition and Technology of the University of Nairobi warned Kenyans against consuming spoiling potatoes.

The team had investigated the handling of potatoes in markets in Dagoretti, Westlands, Embakasi, Kamukunji, and Starehe in Nairobi and found Kenyans engaging in life-threatening survival shortcuts.

“Greening, sprouting, or bruised potatoes are being sold to restaurants and chips vendors, or consumers at a lower price,” said the study published in the International Journal of Food Science. The researchers led by Consolata Nolega Musita explain that exposure of potatoes to unfavourable conditions such as light, extreme temperatures and bruising can result in accumulation of the poison glycoalkaloids.

The potato produces glycoalkaloids as a defense against insects and if consumed can cause stomach upsets, impaired nerves, coma and even death.

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