If there is anything to be learned from the flawed drugs scandal that broke out in February 2015, it is that prevention is better than cure.
People who had sought surgery from La Croix du Sud Hospital ended up suffering grievous side effects after they reacted to an ingredient that was not supposed to be in the anaesthetic administered on them.
Some of the victims had gone for simple surgeries — such as removing a painful toe nail, one person had gone to have a small boil on the chest removed, while others sought more complicated procedures such as circumcision — only for them to suffer rapid decay of the surrounding tissue.
The toxicity was so acute that when doctors attempted to graft skin from one part of their body to another, the grafted skin could not attach.
Besides the physical trauma, the victims continue to suffer enormous emotional and psychological stress as they face uncertainty over their condition.
Tests showed that the adverse reactions were the result of an extra ingredient in a particular batch of Lidocaine, which was not supposed to form part of the drug. This raises pertinent questions: What is the capacity of the relevant authorities in the country to prevent such mishaps, and how adequate is the compensation regime for victims of such medical lapses?
It has since emerged that the country’s drug vetting system is based not on laboratory analysis of imported drugs but on the company’s certificate of authorisation to manufacture a particular drug.
The Rwanda Standards Bureau tests all consumer products that come into the country, including foods, liquids and other merchandise, but does not test drugs.
This lapse is so embarrassing that in the aftermath, the Ministry of Health was fighting hard to distance itself from the incident. Up to now, the victims remain in the dark about the mid to long-term prognosis of their conditions.
The victims banded together and sued the hospital, and the court case took several months. Right from the first court hearing, the hospital agreed that the drug administered caused these problems, but even after the final ruling came, which ordered the drug importer to pay, the level of compensation sanctioned is far from adequate.
After all the money spent on treatment and legal fees, the physical and psychological distress caused, and the uncertainty of the future, the five victims were only given Rwf33 million — a fraction of the Rwf1 billion they had demanded as compensation.
Yet their agony need not be in vain. We can save more people by closing the gaps in consumer safety oversight and by investing in the human and technological capacity required to vet products. Rwanda could develop a centre of excellence that would appeal even to its regional neighbours.