As officials from the Pharmacy and Poisons Board enter Dr Murugu Herbal Clinic, they find Henry* (not his real name) being attended to by the receptionist. Henry’s wife has been suffering from a stomach problem for a long time.
Having seen adverts about the services Murugu Herbal Clinic offers, he decided to travel all the way from Kisii to come and seek alternative means of treatment for his wife.
The clinic is conveniently located in Nairobi’s CBD, on the 7th floor of Contrast House along Moi Avenue. The doctor himself, Peter Murugu, is not in, but the operations are going on, thanks to a team of his five staff, including the receptionist.
The team does not comprise any qualified medic. But when they are questioned, they say their work is just to book patients and not to attend to them.
Henry is unlucky after the officials put a halt to operations at the facility. The routine raid is meant to find out the kind of herbal medicine sold to the public, their quality and safety standards.
The officials, accompanied by police officers, are led by pharmaceutical inspector Dr Agoro Paddy and Valentine Mokaya. They are greeted with a pile of leaflets on the receptionist’s table, indicating the diseases they cure and the time frame it takes before someone gets completely healed.
They include chronic diseases, such as cancer, gynaecological complications and detoxification agents. Some promise healing in as little as two weeks.
The receptionist admits they don’t look into the history of the patients who come seeking treatment. They don’t have medical records. In one of the rooms are rolls of stickers normally used to label the bottles after packaging with unknown concoctions.
The employees refuse to open the stores in which the medicines are kept, claiming they don’t have the key. But after threats from the police officers accompanying the officials, they open them. The store shelves are full of herbal medicines, packaged in transparent bottles.
Some medicines should not be stored in transparent bottles. All the jerrycans with medicines do not even have labels.
Desperate Kenyans are the most vulnerable. Patients can’t even tell what these substances are. It is only him who understands them.
The shelves are fully packed with the already packaged products, labels indicating only the expiry date. No indication of the manufacture date, batch number, storage conditions or the physical address of the doctor is present on the bottles, as per regulations.
It is also required that each medicine should be accompanied with a leaflet with instructions on how to use and the possible side-effects.
“Wait till that day you will get sick and come here and we treat you. That is when you will know these drugs work,” an employee told the team.
The medicines mixing area is full of empty bottles awaiting refill by what only Dr Murugu himself knows.
“Wait till that day you will get sick and come here and we treat you. That is when you will know these drugs work.” Dr Murugu Herbal Clinic employee
KAMIRITHU HERBS CLINIC
Another team raids the Kamirithu Herbs Clinic’s branches in Ngara and Ruiru. They are met with the same irregularities found at Murugu’s clinic. Medicines lack dates indicating when the drugs were manufactured, the expiry dates and the ingredients used to prepare them.
The only available staff member, when requested for her qualifications, says she is just a salesperson and not a licensed chemist.
It emerges the drugs used in the clinic are manufactured at a site in Ruiru, which is supervised by the owner, who doubles up as the chief pharmacist Andrew Njuguna.
On being interviewed by the team at his Kahawa Wendani residence, Njuguna says he studied pharmacy at the Royal College in Ruiru. He says he registered some of his drugs at the University of Nairobi but the government is yet to test the products and release the results.
“We paid the registration fee of Sh50,000 and filled all the required forms but have not received a report from the university on the content and effectiveness of the drug,” Njuguna says.
He says the government’s unwillingness to test and certify or condemn the products convinced him he is free to continue with his activities.
“The last time I went to their offices they dismissed me without giving me audience. I had no option but to go back to what I have been doing for the last 30 years,” he said.
Njuguna claimed one of the powder samples can treat allergies, malaria and diabetes. “I have used it to treat patients who have recovered,” he said.
He said another drug he sells can cure dysmenorrhea, among other gynaecological conditions. The drug is touted as a cure for all gynaecological illnesses.
The herbalist showed the team the equipment he uses to prepare drugs, including a modified posho mill.
The third raid is done at East and West Medical Centre, run by a Chinese. The clinic is not only operating illegally but also selling medicines unfit for human consumption.
Inside the clinic are several products labelled in Chinese, some unlabelled, making it difficult to tell what they are. The owner claims to be importing the drugs but no import documents are found during the raid.
All the products are confiscated and owners expected to be charged.
WHY THE PROBLEM PERSISTS
So far, 76 premises have been inspected and 29 people arrested and charged. Those already arraigned were charged with manufacturing of medicinal substances for sale without licence, supplying poisons when a container is not labelled in the prescribed manner and sale of unregistered drugs.
Thirty clinics have been closed in Nairobi in a week. They include the famous Olive and Makini herbal clinics. At Olive herbal clinic, a large quantity of unknown powder in buckets was seized and the owner arrested and taken to court. The accused was released on Sh100,000 bail.
At Ratilal Makanji Gudka Co Ltd, a large consignment of un-registered herbal products was seized and one person arrested and taken to court and released on Sh80,000 bail.
The raids have left many questions as to what Kenyans might actually be consuming as alternative medicine.
From products that lack ingredients to the packaging that has been done in substandard bottles, Kenyans are believed to be consuming poisonous substances that have not been tested and verified by the government.
Officials from PPB said desperate Kenyans are the most vulnerable to these herbalists, who lie to people they can cure diseases within weeks. There is also lack of information on referral procedures patients ought to follow in case they don’t feel better.
Taking the case of Henry as an example, what he needed was just going back to the hospital and explaining if at all the drugs his wife was using were not working. I am pretty sure the hospital would have exploited other available options.
The board now wants courts to impose hefty fines on those found guilty of operating illegal herbal outlets to discourage the trade. Crackdown coordinator Julius Kaluai says the fines currently imposed on offenders are not deterrent enough.
This is not the first time Murugu’s clinic is being raided. Another raid was done in 2015 and the clinic closed, but it was reopened under unclear circumstances.
The raids are expected to continue to protect the safety of consumers. Kenya is working on guidelines to regulate operations of herbalists, who are partly blamed for increasing the sale of counterfeit medicine by passing them off as herbal to patients.
The regulations will require that herbalists register their medicines and that those medicines have to go for laboratory analysis. Sale of herbal medicine in Kenya is not regulated. Herbalists do not require any special education skills to be licensed by the Department of Culture Services.
Some dealers can be seen openly displaying their wares in the streets, with some hawking them in public service vehicles. Sexual enhancement drugs and those used to improve the body’s immunity are most targeted.
PPB good distribution practices officer Dominic Kariuki urged Kenyans to seek treatment from established mainstream healthcare facilities. These stock registered products whose quality, efficacy and safety are guaranteed, he said.
During this crackdown, PPB used official closure notices (banners), which are displayed on the doors of the clinics that inspectors have closed down. The closure notices have unique serial numbers that are tagged to a given clinic.
Copies of closure forms are given to the local police command to ensure the said premises remain closed. The closure notices also act as a warning to members of the public to keep off.
“Members of the public are advised to use health safety codes displayed in registered pharmacy outlets to verify legality of the premises. Send SMS to 21031 and it is free of charge,” Kariuki said.
The seized herbal products have since been taken for analysis to check for adulteration with conventional medicines and contamination.