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AUGUST 30, 2014
Ola Ijimakin is the General Manager, Marketing, Fidson Healthcare Plc. In this interview, he talks about Nigerian pharmaceutical industry, Ebola Virus Disease and how Astymin can help increase chances of survival.
Are there areas where government can do more to assist local pharmaceutical industries?
In the Pharmaceutical industry, one thing government can do which a lot of government does is to patronise the local industry. There are countries in Africa, plenty of them, where purchases are only from the local industry. But in this country, it’s a little different. A lot of funds are actually used to buy products that are available here from foreign companies. There is a ripple effect. In the factory today, we probably have close to 600-700 people employed directly by the factory outside those of us who work here. And it’s not just us but there are other companies like that. If these people are manufacturing and we don’t have a ready market in the government, there is a challenge.
Also, people have asked for a special fund for the Pharma industry, I’m one of those who believe that drugs are a national security issue. Today, I may be wrong but I think 50-60 per cent of drugs consumed here are imported. What if there is a problem and we can’t import, what happens? If you have malaria and you can’t get anti-malaria tablets, there is problem. There are people who have canvassed for the special fund and I’m also in support of it to support the Pharma industry. It will raise standards of the industry. And of course, the general problem of industries is power. Today, made in Nigeria drugs are very likely more expensive than any drug you import. Power alone is about 30 per cent of the cost. So if you’re a purely business person, it makes sense to import and sell. But for us as a company, we see our business as a mission to make a point that Nigerians can do things right. It will be easier for us to do business by importing and selling but we said no. Sixty per cent of what we sell is made locally and when our new factory is finished, 70-80 per cent of what we sell will be made here.
We have had quite an experience in Nigeria with the Ebola virus scare, are you impressed by the level of awareness displayed by Nigerians so far?
I think the level of awareness is excellent. If countries like Liberia and Sierra-Leone can have this kind of awareness, probably it won’t be as bad as it is. What drove it in those countries was largely ignorance but our case is a lot different. A lot of people and the World Health Organisation have been commending Nigeria for the way we have handled it. Of course, there were a few issues of bathing with salt and water but on the whole, I think virtually everywhere you go, the awareness is good and the reaction is excellent.
It’s good you mentioned the salt and water treatment, what do you think about it?
I don’t know where the rumour started from but because there was a lot of fear, some people actually did that. I think I read about two deaths resulting from it. Scientifically, there is no basis for that. Bathing with salt water or drinking salt water doesn’t help in any way. It actually makes matters worse. One of the major problems with this disease is dehydration and loss of blood, if you are bringing in salt, you’re making it worse. So it won’t help in any way.
What do you think the media should have done or still needs to do to assist in curbing the spread of the Ebola virus?
Well on the whole, I must give kudos to the Nigerian media. Most of the awareness has been driven by them. But I also think a lot of the time; you could see signs of sensationalism. I think they could have focused more on the facts than the hype. For example, we know there are a lot of viral infections that are not as deadly but easily transmitted than Ebola because they are air borne. But thank God that Ebola is not airborne; it cannot be transmitted except by direct contact with body fluid. That’s why you notice that most people infected had direct contact with people who were sick like health care workers, family members, nothing beyond that. So the risk of transmission is not really that bad. If they tell people that there is an isolation centre here, nobody will pass here again. The fact that you are flying in the same plane or the same bus with an infected person won’t make you contract it.
Secondly, the person must be sick to be able to transmit it. It is only a risk when the person is sick. That is, when there are obvious symptoms and two, when you come in contact with the body fluids of an infected person. So I will expect that the media should focus on the facts. There is a need to be cautious because panic will cause more problems.
How really does the Ebola virus affect the biology of an infected person?
At the end, every system will be affected when it gets really bad. But three key systems are affected from the beginning: the gastrointestinal tract, the circulatory system and the immune system. That is why when the symptoms come; you notice a lot of diarrhoea and vomiting. That’s the effect on the gastrointestinal tract. When symptoms come, you also notice a lot of bleeding; the bleeding gets so bad from the gums and from the nose, then rashes and effects on the circulatory system. The third one you notice is that the immune system essentially collapses. Infections that normally should not harm you become life threatening. So there are three key areas: the circulatory system, the GI system and the immunity but of course, the worst of them is the immune system. When the immune system is broken down, the body will not be able to fight back. The immune system is the body’s own defence and when that is broken down, everything becomes harmful. And that is what happens towards the end, the whole system collapses and the person dies. The major thing with Ebola also is the speed at which this will happen. With HIV, this will happen over years, with Ebola, it happens in seven to 10 days.
Does that mean those that have survived it stood a good chance because their immune system was able to fight it?
Essentially. A lot of work has been done before now and that’s why we have Zmapp. People survived Ebola but there were very bad cases where death was as high as nine in 10 people. That’s 90 per cent fatality. But now, it has been around 60 per cent. Four in 10 persons have survived and a lot of work has been done. One thing is obvious and it is that people who tended to survive had a more robust immune system prior to infection. In other words, for lack of a better term, they were better prepared immunity-wise such that when the disease came, it hit the immunity very bad but it would fight and fight and after 21 days, like every viral infection, it tends to run out. Viral infections tend to run a cycle. When the immunity is still able to stand to a point, the person would be able to recover from that point, so how good a man’s immunity is prior to the infection is a pointer to the fact that he might survive. But note that it’s not a guarantee but it’s a higher chance that this person might survive compared to somebody else who already had a compromised immunity prior to the infection.
How can people boost their immune system?
There are several ways and one of them is a healthy eating habit. If you eat a basic balanced diet rich in proteins, vitamins, minerals, it will do a whole lot of good to the immune system. By the way we work today; the truth is that it is difficult to do that, so there are also supplements that can be used. There are supplements that can give you vitamins and there are supplements that can give you minerals. Ideally, you factor them into your diet, so food is essential. Two, exercise is good. Today, obesity is classified as a disease. So for a man who is exercising, it does a lot of good to his immunity, helps clear toxins and keeps him fit. Three, as much as possible, avoid stress. Stress has a way of wrecking immunity. Lagos by nature is stressful but everybody must devise his own way of dealing with stress. There are also supplements that can also help fight stress. So if you take those, they will definitely help. Four, incidentally, is something as simple as sleep. Sleep is like shutting down the factory for maintenance. That is what sleep does at the end of the day. You must make room for that and it is good for the immune system. Today, medically, sleep deprivation is known to harm the immune system. If you deny a man sleep for three days, it will affect his health.
Another thing is supplements that can help build immunity. Naturally one of the strongest things is proteins. Immune cells are essentially proteins and the building block of protein is amino acids. There are two broad groups of amino acids. There are essential amino acids and there are the non-essential amino acids. The essential amino acids are more important in the sense that the body cannot synthesise enough of them in which case you will have to take them from outside. For the non-essential ones, your body needs them and it can synthesise them when it needs them, so it’s important that you take in the essential ones.
How do products like Astymin work to boost immunity?
It is a blend of all the essential amino acids. I’ve said there are non-essential amino acids, which your body needs and can synthesise, but for the essential ones, your body cannot synthesise enough for your need. That is where products like Astymin come in to supply those essential amino acids.
Are there other things that Fidson is doing to find solution to the problem and protect the people?
Internally, we have hand sanitisers at the gate. They are on every floor. There are posters around so there is a lot of information internally. If you go to the factory, it’s even more because we have more people there and the chances of contact are also more, so the health and safety unit of the company is doing a lot on that. Externally, there is also a lot of information. We go round the community with handbills, basically to provide information also. But as a company on the larger scale, very soon we will be opening unarguably one of the biggest manufacturing facilities in this part of the world in terms of size and scale. It’s quite big and of course also in quality. Unlike what happens in a lot of facilities where they try to upgrade an old facility to suit today’s standards, we are building this from scratch to meet today’s standard and we are very excited about that.
(As published in Punch Newspaper of August 30, 2014; page 52.)