TBY talks to The Hon. Dr. Joseph Kasonde, Minister of Health, on encouraging domestic pharmaceutical manufacturing, the progress of new clinics, and getting more doctors into the field.

The Hon. Dr. Joseph Kasonde
The Hon. Dr. Joseph Kasonde graduated from the University of Aberdeen in 1966 with a Bachelor’s degree in Medicine and Surgery. He is a Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. He subsequently attained his Doctor of Medicine degree in 1976 in Aberdeen based on research done at the University of Oxford. From 1977 to 1984 Dr. Kasonde served as Director of Medical Services, combining this position with that of Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health of Zambia from 1979. From 1985-98 he worked for the World Health Organization as Responsible Officer for Research Capacity Strengthening in Developing Countries in the Special Programme for Research and Research Training in Human Reproduction.

The vast majority of the supply comes from imports. What are your plans for developing a drug manufacturing industry in Zambia?

It is difficult to ensure availability of drugs when you are dependent on sourcing them from abroad. There is a need for some production to be realized in Zambia, although manufacturing in terms of laboratory synthesis is not a realistic proposition for Zambia today. However, in the later stages of pharmaceutical processing and production there is the possibility of setting up operations here. We need to establish some incentives as part of the Zambian Development Agency related to tax and other critical areas. Secondly, we should work with those who are interested in manufacturing and guide them in areas where they might have a maximum impact by producing locally. The concern about both money and distribution systems is that if you do not define the essential medicines, success is elusive as there are over 3,000 products worldwide, and Zambia cannot afford to buy them all. We have to define essential needs, and there must be absolute availability of those essential medicines.

What is the status of your plan to build 650 health posts at an estimated cost of $50 million?

We are progressing steadily. In terms of the contract time that we have given to our contractors, we may set April 2016 as the completion date. People have been impatient ever since we announced the plan, but we will do our best to have it ready as soon as possible.

What will be the impact of this project once completed?

We have promised that the distance, or the radius, around any institution that we can reasonably expect a person to travel when ill is 5km. At present, the average distance is between 40-80km. These 650 posts are meant to address that issue by reducing the distances people travel before they reach a healthcare facility.

How will you address the shortage of healthcare professionals?

We aim to increase our intake by encouraging both the public and private sector to engage in training. As of today, the number of nurses trained by the private sector is almost the same as those trained by governmental institutions. Unfortunately, health workers also take a long time to train, so we need to persuade our people to be patient. Even if we increase the number of students today, they will not be ready to work immediately.

You mentioned the increase in the balance of non-communicable diseases in Zambia. What does that mean for the Ministry?

Over the past two years we have taken several steps to address non-communicable diseases. The new Cancer Diseases Hospital that we hope to commission shortly is one of the examples of our efforts. The structure is meant to be more than a hospital; it will be a center of excellence for the prevention and management of cancer.

What role do mobile technologies and other new technologies play in providing healthcare to rural areas?

We have adopted e-learning, and though our initial effort was perhaps small, we have established five nursing schools and a unit at the University Hospital. This unit is called Tele-Medicine, and will offer the chance for people to access health services remotely by sending images and being assessed online. The potential for ICT solutions is huge, especially in the supply management of drugs. A good control of drug stocks is essential as instant information will allow us to react instantly.