Giving Priority to Healthcare in Nigeria

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Relative to most countries, Nigeria is still lagging behind in areas of healthcare and mortality rates. But a recent recipient of the Lifetime Achievers Award of NHEA and a seasoned haematologist, Prof. Ibironke Akinsete, believes there can only be positive change if the citizens and the government give priority to healthcare. Martins Ifijeh writes

Many citizens have added in no small measure to the level of poor healthcare due to their attitudes, lifestyles and beliefs. And experts have blamed past and present Nigerian leaders for the ravaging poor healthcare, high disease burden and shameful mortality rates being experienced in the country.

These were the thoughts of a seasoned Professor of Haematology and Blood Transfusion, and the Chairman, Board of Directors, PathCare Laboratories Nigeria, Prof. Ibironke Akinsete, who believed for every country’s healthcare to work, both government and the citizens must play active roles in the process.

She said while the Nigerian Government is not exonerated from the country’s poor health indices, the citizens should understand that government has several hats it’s wearing, hence everyone need to be patriotic, through approaches that reduce disease burdens.

“Do you know with simple hygiene from Nigerians, malaria can be eradicated? Malaria has been with us for a long time. When we clean our gutters, throw away stagnant waters, clean our environment, stop the attitude of dumping dirts in our drainage systems, there will no longer be breeding ground for mosquitoes. Even if government spend a lot of money on prevention of mosquitoes, if we as citizens don’t do the basic things, efforts of the government will not yield much.

“Decades ago Lagos used to be very clean. You would hardly see stagnated waters and blocked drainage systems. But these days, people don’t care what happens to their neigbhours or their immediate environment. Some even block gutters with dearths. How then will drainages work? Just look at the number of dirts coming out of the gutters since flooding started. That is a breeding ground for diseases,” she added.

Giving another example, Akinsete, who is 79 years old, and a 2017 recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Awards of the prestigious Nigerian Healthcare Excellence Award, said many women are still dying in the country during childbirth because of hemorrhage, adding that situations where Nigerians hardly imbibe the culture of voluntary donations would make it difficult for hospitals to have ready blood to give to bleeding women.

“I was once the Chairman, Lagos State Blood Transfusion Service, and at the time, getting people to voluntarily donate blood was a problem. Even till now that apathy is still there. We had so many campaigns on donor recruitments and the need for Nigerians to see it as patriotic to voluntarily donate blood. How many Nigerians see it as a civic duty to do that, yet we all complain that women are dying. Patriotic efforts of citizens can go a long way in saving some of our women who suffer or die during childbirth, majorly because there is no blood available for them.

“If a woman needs blood and the hospital has no blood to give, what then can we expect, because there is no substitute to blood. You can’t give drugs to replace blood. It has to be blood that should be given. We can help the health indices of this country by playing our part,” she said.

Akinsete, who was the Senior Special Assistant to former President Olusegun Obasanjo on National Action Committee on AIDS, (now National Agency for the Control of AIDS), said the I-don’t-care attitudes of Nigerians on healthcare will continue to hamper progress until there is a new mindset.

“I believe for us to move forward, we need a new mindset, because what is happening now is that everyone is becoming too money conscious. Money is okay, but health is key. There are some communicable diseases we should have gotten rid of years ago, they are still with us. Has immunisation for polio succeeded? I am a Rotarian and I know how much Rotary Club has contributed to eradication of polio in this country.

“But in some parts of Nigeria they don’t take it seriously. Nigeria is one of the three countries where polio is yet to be eradicated. We should ask ourselves why? We have highly qualified people in this country. We seem to be moving backward.”

Prof., as she is fondly called, did not also leave governments at all levels out of the blame. She said Nigerian leaders are no longer making healthcare a priority, adding that consciously making healthcare priority by both the government and the citizens was only what the country needs to surpass the present healthcare challenges.

She wondered why government continues to slash healthcare budgets, yet wants the country to be at par with nations with good healthcare system. “It can’t be possible that way. There is no magic in this thing. Go to Turkey, United States and some other countries and you will see that they invest so much in healthcare. Even countries not as developed as ours have good healthcare. Some African countries like Ghana and South Africa have it better than us. It’s about priority,” she stressed.

Akinsete was part of the committee that drafted paper work for the Abuja Declaration where African countries unanimously agreed to give a minimum of 15 per cent of their annual budget to healthcare. She said surprisingly, a country which hosted such a laudable agreement has till date refused to honour it.

“When I was the Chairman of NACA, we used to go to the National Assembly to defend our budgets, but it was worrisome for me anytime we go there, because they always end up slashing it. Other sectors have robust budgets than the health sector. But we have all forgotten that when a people are unhealthy, they cannot deliver on other sectors where more money has been allocated to. A healthy population will do the best for its country. If you don’t have a healthy population, you won’t be able to achieve much.”

Buttressing her point, Akinsete, who is a Scotland-trained Haematologist, and had championed causes on women’s health both nationally and globally, said when she came back to Nigeria from Canada in 1968, she went to College of Medicine, University of Lagos where she became a lecturer, adding that at the time, Lagos University Teaching Hospital was at par with hospitals where she was coming from.

“I even wrote to my colleagues back in Canada that our healthcare system was good. I also invited some of them to come here. I was excited taking them round the health institution because the hospital was well funded. But go to LUTH and other health institutions in the country today. You will see that they are all deprived of funds. Governments no longer put required money into our healthcare sector. There is no reason our government can’t give basic healthcare to its population.”

She called for total reorientation from all stakeholders, including the executives, lawmakers and citizens, adding that the way forward was a change in mindset.

The former President, Society for Women and AIDS in Nigeria, while speaking with THISDAY on other sundry healthcare matters, said on Human Immuno Virus (HIV), it was unfortunate that the country has now made it a back burner, adding that continuous campaigns was still much necessary.

Giving a narrative of how she joined other patriots to fight HIV/AIDS in the country, she said, together with Prof. Ransome Kuti, she helped in developing strategies for prevention and control, adding that at the point HIV was fairly known in the country.

“So we started making noise about it, until we finally met a president (Obasanjo) who believed in us. Presidents before him did not believe there was a health challenge as HIV/AIDS. Even Nigerians never believed until they started seeing real scenarios of people becoming emaciated and sickly as a result of the deadly virus. That was how the National Action Committee on AIDS started with a lot of awareness on prevention. That committee I chaired then is now an Agency,” she added.

She said at the time there was no medication, adding that she remembered the fight she had with traditional practitioners who said they could cure AIDS, as many came with their concoctions which were looked at and discarded because they could not have cured AIDS.

“I remembered then, one of my medical colleagues who said he could cure AIDS. We invited him over to tell us how he could cure AIDS. But there was nothing convincing. Up till now, many have been coming out to say they have the medications, unfortunately some Nigerians have sold their properties just to get this cure, but they were never cured.”

She said it was the foundation she and her team laid down against HIV that has now translated into the reduction of the virus in the country, adding that it was unfortunate the campaigns were no longer on the front burner of the government.

Akinsete, who through her public health service to Nigerians earned for herself several accolades, was recently honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Awards by the prestigious Nigerian Healthcare Excellence Award 2017 in recognition of her distinguished career and passionate commitment to excellence and quality healthcare.

She described the award as a reward for her relentless work in the field of healthcare, adding that the honour means a lot to her.

Akinsete has been involved in healthcare advocacy for the past 54 years, and she believes she will continue to give her quota despite being 79 years. “Medicine is my passion, so I won’t stop advocating good healthcare anytime soon,” the highly cerebral and eloquent professor said.

Incidentally, the organisation, PathCare Laboratories Nigeria, which she is the Chairman, Board of Directors, also won the Nigerian Healthcare Excellence Award in the Private Laboratory Service Provider of the Year category for the fourth time.

PathCare is the only internationally accredited laboratory with ISO 15189 in Nigeria.

She described the feat by PathCare as a combination of hard work from herself, board members, the Managing Director, and the entire staff. Adding that the organisation has built excellence for itself over the years, a decision, which she said was only being rewarded by Nigerians through the serial awards.