There are growing concerns that international pharmaceutical companies, and their local agents, are making Kenyans pay inflated prices for life-saving medication.
A comparison of what it costs Kenyans to buy these crucial medication reveals we are forking out a tidy sum compared to other countries, including in Europe and Asia.
For instance, the average wholesale price of a packet of 10 tablets of Augmentin, an antibiotic manufactured by an international pharmaceutical giant for infections such as pneumonia, costs Sh1,500 in the United Kingdom but in Kenya it costs at least Sh9,500.
Interestingly, the same crucial medicine costs less than half the price in neigbouring Tanzania and Uganda, even though it is packaged in Nairobi and transported there by road.
Similarly, Zaltrap, the brand name of a medicine used to treat cancer of the rectum costs Sh350,000 per injection in Kenya, but the same medicine by the same manufacturer costs Sh59,000 in Turkey. Patients need at least eight injections, meaning majority of Kenyans may not afford it.
Cancer drug Sandostain Lar (20mg) manufactured by a Swiss pharma giant costs Sh60,000 in India but in Kenya the same medicine goes for over Sh200,000.
A patient who has undergone kidney transplant will require a cocktail of medicine for a long time to prevent organ rejection. In Kenya, such a cocktail will cost Sh40,000 per month while in Turkey, the same brand of original medicine will cost not more than Sh10,000 per month.
A brand of medicine to manage breast cancer in post menopausal women will cost a patient Sh7,500 per month and might be required for as long as five years. In Turkey however, the same brand will cost the patient Sh2,000 per month.
Original anti-epileptic medication will cost over Sh10,000 and a patient is expected to take them on a daily basis for the rest of his life. Branded medication to manage sickle cell anaemia symptoms can cost up to Sh2,000 per month or even more. The same branded original products are much more cheaper in some European markets.
A packet of 30 tablets of “Dilatrend”, a drug used to treat heart failure and high blood pressure goes for Sh335 in Italy and Turkey but in Kenya, it is sold for at least Sh2,130. This means Kenyans are paying 538 per cent more
The Pharmacy and Poisons Board, which regulates the pharmaceutical industry, has now called on international pharmaceutical companies and their local sales agents to standardise their prices to ensure that Kenyans do not pay significantly more than patients in other countries.
“It is our responsibility as Government to ensure drugs are affordable for majority of Kenyans. We do not want something called disease capitalism where people capitalise on sickness for people to make super profits,” said the Board’s Registrar Dr Kipkerich Koskei.
Currently, in Kenya, the cost of medicine and their mark-ups are not regulated this is after price controls were abolished in October 1994. The Government does not impose any tariffs on finished pharmaceutical products, whether locally manufactured or imported.
Dr Koskei indicated that in recent years, the Board has allowed a select number of local pharmacists who meet stringent conditions to do parallel importation of the same original drugs in order to bring down the prices.
Parallel importation brings in medicines from countries where their prices are much lower than Kenya and are sold locally at prices that beat those offered by manufacturers or their distributors, whose authorisation is not sought for importation.
He said the move, has brought some relief to Kenyans but has faced stiff opposition from manufacturers and their exclusive distributors who claim they are being undercut.
“We are currently finalising on guidelines for parallel importation and once complete, we will license more local firms. This is expected to bring down prices of imported drugs even further,” he said.
Dr Koskei said the Board counter-checks, to confirm, that medicines brought in through parallel importation are in fact the same original ones and not counterfeits.
Recently, the safety of parallel imported drugs became a subject of public concern after Dr Koskei was accused, by a person claiming to be a whistle blower, that he was allowing importation of substandard medicines in the name of parallel importation in exchange for kickbacks.
This allegation left many Kenyans in shock and doubting the safety and quality of drugs meant to make health care affordable.
However, investigations reports by various government agencies, seen by this writer, including those by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations found the claims to be untrue and the files were subsequently closed.
Cabinet Secretary for Health Dr Cleopa Mailu also alluded that the whistle blower, may have had a bone to pick with his superiors after being relocated from the Board on disciplinary grounds.
On his part Dr Kamamia wa Murichu, Chairman of Kenya Pharmaceutical Distributors Association, which does parallel importation, said multinational pharmaceutical companies are misleading Kenyans by terming parallel imported medicines as “counterfeits”. He said this is just a tactic to try and scare people from buying them.
He said importation of medicines is transparent and that all the information about these drugs has been made available to the government regulator. He insisted that all parallel imported medicines into Kenya are safe and of good quality.
“It is through parallel importation that many Kenyans are able to access life-saving medicines. Some Kenyans have been made to wrongly believe that when drugs are expensive, they are more original and of better quality. They do not realise they are being exploited,” Dr Kamamia said.
He added: “ If their claims are indeed true, why haven’t they reported to the Kenya Anti-Counterfeit Authority for necessary action?”
Parallel importation was legalised through amendment of Kenya Industrial Property Act and the World Trade Organisation regulations to allow access of essential medicines for poor countries.
According to a research brief on the pharmaceutical pricing regulations in Kenya drafted by the think-tank Africa Centre for Technology Studies, the liberalised and competitive pharmaceutical market has not translated to lower prices, thereby locking out many Kenyans.