By Osman Benk Sankoh
Imagine this: You’ve just tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Doctors say the only medication to cure you of the infection that was first detected in Wuhan, China, in late December last year is chloroquine. You are required to swallow the bitter pill. Would you think twice before asking for the tablet? In matters of life and death, the answer is obvious – to the taste buds, it may even feel like a glass of juice or Amarula.
With this, and amid a pandemic that continues to wreak havoc on the world’s population, with fear, anxiety and death the order of the day, sub-Saharan Africa now seems to be banking their slim hopes on chloroquine to halt infections. According to the John Hopkins University & Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center, 241,181 confirmed cases of the virus have been reported, 9,881 persons have died, and 85,688 recovered. Note that these figures keep changing.
The very-hard-to-drink and bitter anti-malaria pill from the 1940s is a permanent resident in the homes of almost every African on the continent. At the hospitals, patients self-diagnose, claiming to be suffering from Malaria before requesting for chloroquine injection or the anti-malaria pills. Mothers often would force it down the throat of their kids once they start showing signs of illness, even if not related to the disease. Where it is hard to come by, a bitter herbal concoction mixed with water in a bottle, some say, serves the same efficacy as chloroquine. In most cases, folks get healed days later.
As a child, I once travelled with my parents to Masiemra village in the northern province of the country for Christmas. No sooner had we arrived, and even before we were rested, than my grandpa Pa Wusu asked my dad what he brought for him from Rokiamp- the Themne reference to Freetown, the capital city. Without waiting for an answer, the ‘old man’ asked if Papa came with some chloroquine tablets for him. For grandpa’ and a lot more, it was gold nuggets and the perfect antidote to Malaria in a country where the disease is rampant like common cold and headache.
In 2018, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 228 million deaths worldwide were caused by Malaria. 405,000 of that number were in Africa, and mostly children. In a country where the entire population is at risk of the disease, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), it is almost impossible to come by a Sierra Leonean or anyone from sub-
Saharan Africa who has not contracted Malaria repeatedly. The mosquito-borne disease caused by a parasite leading to fever, chills, and flu-like illness is the leading cause of death, and behind nearly four in ten hospital consultations in Sierra Leone, WHO says.
With a failing public health system that is yet to recover from the civil war of the 90s and the aftermath of the 2014 West Africa Ebola outbreak, it is common to see the sick requesting for chloroquine to be inserted into their intravenous drips even before the Doctor requests for labs tests to determine the cause of illness. Others have found alternative means of gulping the anti-malaria pill when necessary. “I remember taking this drug while growing up. It used to itch my body so bad. It was like torture for me whenever asked to take it, and thinking of it now makes my body cringe,” says Janisa Jalil Momodu.
Chloroquine, like other anti-malaria pills such as Artesunate and Quinine, is everywhere and anywhere. No one needs to get a Doctor’s prescription to buy the pills. Thus, it was music to the ears of many Africans when President Donald Trump announced to the entire world that he has directed the Food and Drug Administration ( FDA) to look at the possibility of making available chloroquine and another drug to help tackle coronavirus. ABC News asked: “Could a decades-old malaria drug work to treat COVID-19?” A follow-up on its website states: “Elon Musk seems to think so,” recently tweeting that “it might be worth considering chloroquine” for COVID-19.” Musk is the CEO of Tesla. In 2016, he was ranked 21st on the Forbes list of the World’s Most Powerful People, and the 20th richest person on the planet.
Though not yet FDA approved, the mere thought of a very cheap and common drug that is widely known and easily accessible to almost everyone in sub-Sahara Africa is in itself good news. It could have helped reduce the anxiety of a continent that is known for civil crises, natural disasters and diseases like Ebola. CNBC, an American news outlet, reports: “Some of the early data is promising. A group of researchers in France are testing a less toxic derivative of the chloroquine drug called hydroxychloroquine on a few dozens of patients with COVID-19, and early reports of the trial indicate that the drug might help to shorten the amount of time that people with the disease are infectious.”
There are fears, though, that such news may lead to abuse and scarcity of the pills much to the detriment of those patients suffering from Malaria. Meanwhile, on twitter and other social media platforms, the response to Chloroquine by Africans as a potential cure for the coronavirus was on overdrive. Harri Obi, a Nigerian,
twitted: “Nigerian hospitals used to give us that drug like candy, growing up. If you search our systems, I’m sure you’d still find remnants of the drug inside.” Another, Olamide Popoola of Ibadan, writes: “There is no way coronavirus is getting near us in Africa. We used a lot of chloroquine tablets while growing up even though we hated the aftermath (the itchy body). Now, we cannot hate our African mothers for it, can we?”
Meanwhile, for Malaria, all is not grim. Sierra Leone achieved significant declines in malaria deaths, from 2010 to 2015, and there is a commitment, according to the world health body, to reduce new malaria infections this year.
For now, let’s pray that chloroquine turns out to be stone that the builders refused.