The saying goes like this, “An Ayiti moun pa mouri kòz natirel,” in Haiti there is no such thing as natural death. According to some people, every death in Haiti can almost be traced to some sort of mystical power. A car got into an accident, people would blame it on the mystics. Someone got sick and died; they would blame it on voodoo or evil power. And on and on the song goes.
It seems that we are one of the few people on this planet who don’t believe that death is a natural process. Unfortunately, one very important aspect of why people often die without any clear explanation in Haiti is being overlooked. We have a silent killer in our midst that no one is willing to talk about, mainly because it’s another way to enrich a few.
I have been working in the biopharmaceutical industry for more than 10 years, and from my experience I have become to understand and appreciate why developed countries have so many regulations protecting their citizens against unregulated medicines. For example, on average, it can take more than a decade from the discovery of a new compound to the time it becomes a commercialized product that sick patients can take. The main reason for such long delay is usually tied up with safety study that are put in place to ensure that new drugs are safe and the side effects are well understood before it can be marketed to people.
In Haiti, we have an unregulated market, where everything from anyone is readily available to the public at large. In the 21st century, many people are still stuck in practicing non-scientific medicine, and often times at the detriment of those they love most.
It is not my intention to demonize the practice of folk medicine that has been practiced in Haiti for years, but rather to point out some of the clear dangers that such practices along with the negligence by the Haitian scientific community present to the people.
It is time that we address this silent killer in our society. Haitians have one of the lowest life expectancies in the western hemisphere—and not all of it should be blamed on the impoverished conditions of the people. We have a systemic negligence across the board, where people in position of authorities refuse to do their job and show very little concern for people’s lives.
Scientifically speaking, almost everything that we ingest can be toxic, which means they can cause serious damage to our health. When people have to ingest pharmaceuticals that are not well labeled, or that the dosage is not known, it can be fatal.
In Haiti, it is very common for people to buy medicines in bottles that are not clearly marked what they contain. For example, I have at my house a bottle of Madère, which was recently purchased in Haiti. The label simply says it’s Madère, and the company that produces, but I have no idea what the active ingredients are, what it should be used for and how, at what dosage, and no expiration date, let alone to find information on the inactive ingredients or where to call if I have any question. This is a recipe for death.
Those medicines are sold on the streets, by small vendors, who themselves have no idea what they are selling. Drugs that should be kept at cool temperature often can be found on the streets under the harsh sun, which has the potential to degrade the active ingredients and create complex mixture before it is even sold.
Now, if you add the layer of drugs interaction, which is the mixing of different prescription or over-the-counter drugs, the potential for danger is even greater. For example, how common do you think it is for a sick person in Haiti to take a penicillin, an aspirin, and sometimes drink a little of tea from let’s say Annona muricata leaves or “fèy Korosol”, all at the same time without any knowledge if these things can be mixed; surprisingly, this is rather a very common occurrence in Haiti.
Now, it does not matter how one dies, death is death, regardless of how you look at it. A country that is on the verge of redefining itself needs all the human capacity that it can get. We need to put a valuable premium on the life of every single individual. It is in our national best interest to seek ways to minimize death that could be prevented.
Even our best pharmacies are not practicing sound quality management of how they dispense drugs to patients. There are no such things as quality control that can validate what people are taking when they buy a prescription drug in Haiti. The pharmacies are not equipped to hand out medicines that are well labeled and with clear instructions.
A population that is by-large illiterate often is left at the mercy of a brief oral instruction from a qualified pharmacist to know how they should use a prescribed drug. Haitians are slowly and silently being killed by the unregulated pharmaceutical industry in Haiti.
On a business stand-point, some people are making money from medicinal treatment in Haiti. Whether it is a few, selling off rare leaves or entrepreneurs who own pharmacies, a group of people are taking full advantage of Haiti’s unregulated market at the expense of people’s lives.
This crisis is a big problem, if you agreed that each life is precious and worth protecting. We have been talking about a new Haiti ever since the earthquake, and yet those responsible to protect human lives have continued to look the other way, when it comes to address issues like this one.
There is no reason in this day and age for anyone to be buying medicines that are not properly labeled. It would be wise to set aside some of the reconstruction money to launch a campaign aim at educating the people about the effect that drugs can have on their health, and it is definitely time for the Haitian government to create an agency that will be charged of regulating the use of drugs within the country.
Sometimes we are quick to blame all deaths on the voodoo mystics, but more often than not, the killer is silently under our nose and inside our homes. Next time, someone tries to convince you to take something out of a container that is not labeled; I would advise that you think twice and thoroughly before ingesting it. Life is too precious to leave to chance.