Some health workers stationed in border districts clinics are causing constant stock-outs of essential drugs by stealing and then selling them to private clinics and pharmacies in Mozambique, a Weekend Nation sting has unearthed.
A week-long undercover investigation, which took us to Milanje District in Mozambique, established that government loses a greater supply of its medical drugs and hospital equipment to unscrupulous health workers who steal and sell the same to private clinics and drug stores.
As part of its project to set the agenda in public service delivery systems, Weekend Nation wanted to appreciate health service in rural-based health centres.
Posing as a potential supplier offering more competitive prices, our reporter visited owners of private clinics and pharmacies in Villa, Milanje, to strike business deals.
Our reporter, who was fully equipped with samples of drugs courtesy of the Ministry of Health and Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital, two institutions which were informed of the mission before departure, assured the foreign clinicians that he had the capacity to supply even the most difficult-to-find drugs at competitive prices to secure a quick market.
Sharuwa Mphepo, who runs a private clinic in Villa, was the first to seal the deal with our reporter and offered to buy LA at K80 per tablet or K480 for a full dose.
In contrast, Seven to Seven Medicine Store at Luchenza in Thyolo sells the same dose at K1 500.
Mphepo said he pays K1 500 for 1 000 tablets of indocid from Malawi while Seven to Seven Medicine Store is charging K5 500 for the same amount of tablets.
“You may wish to go and inquire from my friend just across the river to appreciate that I’m telling you the truth. I’m a pastor at the Charismatic New Life Christ Ministry and wouldn’t want to cheat anyone when doing my business,” he emphasised.
He added: “My supplier is Martin and he works at Muloza Health Centre. For five trays of Vitamin B Complex (50 tablets), I pay him K600 or K700 and K5 000 for chloramphenicol. If you’re ready to counteroffer, I’m ready to be your customer.”
Mphepo bought from the reporter a bottle of Vitamin B Complex (tablets) at K500.
The clinic owner then showed our reporter many bottles of drugs in his “pharmacy” labelled Malawi Government.
Mphepo then drew a list of drugs his clinic is currently in need of. Among others, he said he had run out of Vitamin B Complex (injection), quinine, Benzathine Penicillin, LA, doxycline, amoxicillin, indocid, needles, scabies ointment (BB paint), tetracycline, gentamycin, chloramphenicol, erythromycin, promethazine and praziquantel.
“You’ll choose whether to be paid in MK [Malawi kwacha] or meticals. Don’t worry that I’m in Mozambique; I always have both currencies at my disposal for buying drugs from your friends,” challenged the pastor.
On the other hand, drug vendors at Muloza Trading Centre said they buy 10 tablets of bacterium at K15 while K10 is enough to buy you 10 tablets of Panado.
When later told that he was dealing with a newspaper reporter for a news story, Mphepo was shocked and refused to say anything more.
After getting a tip that a worker at Mimosa Health Centre in Mulanje, Watson Nguluwe, is part of the syndicate that sells Malawi drugs to Mozambique, our reporter, also posing as a supplier who works at Thyolo District Hospital, visited him with a view to enter into a business partnership.
Nguluwe admitted being part of the syndicate and said he supplies government drugs to a Mr. Lingwame who owns a clinic in Mozambique.
But Nguluwe clarified that he supplies to Lingwame drugs that he also buys from other health workers who have access to pharmacies in their respective duty stations in Malawi.
“As a patient attendant, I’ve no access to a pharmacy. And because of this problem, I’ve failed to provide Lingwame a constant supply such that the last time I supplied him was in June 2014. I am, therefore, interested to be your customer as long as you can assure me of stable supply,” he said.
Without disclosing in what capacity he is working there, he also admitted that he is a part-time employee of Lingwame in Mozambique.
Nguluwe could not pick his phone yesterday, but his in-charge, a Mrs. Damiano, denied being among those selling drugs to Nguluwe.
“I’m relatively new at this facility. I found Nguluwe already working here. So, I may not know if my predecessors were involved in such a business. But I’m equally shocked by these revelations and I just hope justice shall take its course to ensure some of us do not get unfairly persecuted,” said Damiano.
Mulanje district health officer (DHO), Dr. Khuliena Kabwere, said he was equally not aware of the racket.
“As you know, we’re not an arresting authority. As such, we rely on the police to help us arrest and prosecute suspected staff. However, I feel that the police have, so far, not proven strong enough to help us deal with such a problem.
“I’m saying this because in cases of drug pilferage, for instance, we’ve failed to secure convictions on suspected officers. They end in acquittals, which can in no way deter would-be offenders,” said the DHO.
Principal Secretary for Health, Dr. Chris Kang’ombe, assured that his ministry will present the information and evidence Weekend Nation has gathered to the law enforcement agencies so that they can arrest and prosecute the culprits.
“We can only thank Weekend Nation for steadily assisting us catch drug pilferers such as Thyolo HSA [health surveillance assistant] who used to sell ARVs. We strongly believe that with your assistance, government will be able to deal with all the culprits,” said Kang’ombe.
The Malawi Health Equity Network (Mhen) executive director Martha Kwataine expressed shock at the revelation, describing it as “the highest grade lack of patriotism by the involved health workers.”
Kwataine said it was incredible that some people could be “unpatriotic and heartless to the point of paralysing their own country’s health sector.”
“It’s quite shocking that at a time when government is working very hard to convince its bilateral donors on fiscal discipline to facilitate quicker aid resumption, someone would be so unpatriotic and heartless to the point of stripping the health sector of even the little resources,” said Kwataine.
She expressed fears that the malpractice could paralyse the health sector “that is if it’s not already paralysed.”
“I, therefore, appeal to government to use its law enforcement agencies to thoroughly investigate the malpractice and bring all the culprits to book,” stressed Kwataine.