In absence of a tried and tested drug or vaccine for COVID-19, the Food and Drug Authority (FDA) must urgently enforce its guidelines for ‘advertisement of drugs’ in Ghana and the circulation of information by well-known personalities which has the effect of derailing the work of public health officials in Ghana.
Celebrities in Ghana in the last few years have had conflicts with the FDA regarding their involvement in the advertisement of alcoholic beverages. The apparent conflict is borne out of the enforcement of the ‘Guidelines for the Advertisement Foods’ by the FDA. This has resulted in some beverage manufacturing companies engaging other celebrities from Nigeria to market their products on social media.
Currently, the bigger problem we have on our hands is the circulation of inaccurate information which poses a threat to the fight against COVID-19 in Ghana. In March 2020, Nigeria reported two cases of chloroquine poisoning after Donald Trump tweeted about the anti-malaria drug as a treatment for COVID-19. This caused Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control to disclaim the use of chloroquine and warn persons that its use will cause harm and may result in death.
Videos and posts of some Ghanaian religious leaders and other well-known personalities have shown them proffering the use of various drugs and products as treatment for COVID-19. This is forbidden by the FDA’s guidelines for the advertisement of drugs. Paragraph 3.2.3 bars persons from advertising any drug (including orthodox, herbal and homoeopathic) or chemical substances unless such advertisement has been approved by the FDA. Advertisement under the guidelines is defined to include ‘a representation by any means for the purpose of promoting, directly or indirectly, the use, sale or disposal of a product’. Therefore, advertisement of unapproved drugs for the treatment of various diseases on the internet, radio, notices, television and other platforms are proscribed.
Conscious of the impact ‘well-known personalities’ have on the population, the guidelines prevent any reference to scientists, health professionals or well-known personalities such as religious and political leaders, movie, music, and sports figures who by virtue of their status could encourage consumption of products, to the detriment of the health of persons in any form of drug advertisement.
It is an offence to contravene the guidelines and a person who contravenes it is liable to a fine of not less than GH¢90,000 and not more than GH¢180,000. In addition, an offender may be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not less than fifteen years or not more than twenty-five years.
Thus, in making statements, advertisement or publications about drugs during this difficult period, well-known personalities should understand that there is an implied duty of care in their relations with Ghanaians. Consequently, they must exercise due care when they share information ostensibly to advise the public on the health benefits associated with certain drugs or products. This is because they must know or ought to know that reliance is being placed on their status, skill and judgment. Disclaimers cannot absolve such offenders of criminal liability if the circumstances show that if reasonable caution and observation had been used, they would have realised that their actions would probably cause or contribute to causing some members of the public to use unapproved substances or drugs to treat COVID-19.
We have been advised by the World Health Organisation and Ghana Health Service to follow the preventive protocols by washing our hands thoroughly with soap and water or alcohol-based sanitisers; maintaining the social [physical] distance of at least one metre; avoid touching eyes, nose, and mouth and staying at home if we are unwell or having nothing important that affects life.
The FDA has the responsibility to help the government in flattening the curve and preventing a health crisis associated with substance or drug abuse.