True Impact: Helping Babies Thrive in Nigeria

Olakunle Ekundayo became a pharmacist to help others in need. And while his career ultimately took a different path, his role today as the CEO of a pharmaceutical manufacturing company has given him the opportunity to impact thousands of newborn lives in Nigeria, and beyond.

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In Nigeria, mothers frequently deliver their babies at home—only 36 percent deliver at health care facilities.1Giving birth without the assistance of trained healthcare providers leaves babies vulnerable to infections, and some can be fatal. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 400,0002 babies die annually from infections, including neonatal sepsis, an infection that occurs when bacteria enters the body through a newly-cut umbilical cord.

In many developing countries, traditions passed down through generations can increase this risk. In certain cultures, family members often apply substances, such as mud or cow dung on their baby’s freshly cut umbilical cords unaware that these products are rife with bacteria and often prove deadly.

But research has shown that by applying chlorhexidine gel, a low-cost antiseptic to the umbilical cord just after birth, there is a 68 percent reduction in severe infection and a 23 percent reduction in infant death.3

Prior to 2013, however, no one in Sub-Saharan Africa manufactured the gel.  Mr. Ekundayo volunteered his company, Drugfield, to fill this urgent need in response to outreach by the Promoting the Quality of Medicines (PQM) program, a global public health program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by USP.

Locally producing essential medicines, such as chlorhexidine, has major benefits; it may bring down medication costs, increase the speed of distribution to patients who need it most, and ensuring there is a steady supply available. Mr. Ekundayo understood what the benefits of partnering with USP could mean for families across Nigeria.  He knew that with USP’s help, he could potentially help mitigate one of his country’s biggest public health issues.

As work began, Mr. Ekundayo quickly learned about USP’s successful track record of collaborating with scientists, manufacturers and regulators to help ensure the quality of medicines made around the world. For the past three years, USP -- through the PQM program -- provided technical assistance to Drugfield to strengthen good manufacturing practices for the production of chlorhexidine to meet international quality standards. This partnership has given Mr. Ekundayo the assistance he needs to build Drugfield’s capacity and produce more of this essential medicine.

Through the PQM program, USP inspects the quality of the equipment at Drugfield, makes recommendations for upgrades and provides guidance on improving procedures. USP also offers in-person trainings to introduce new processes and provides technical support.

Mr. Ekundayo emphasized that the relationship with USP is vital to the work he’s done in Nigeria, “We have access to their offices here [in Nigeria] and often discuss opportunities as they arise. They don’t just come to look and tell us what to do. They truly engage with us and provide the support we need to manufacture a quality product because they want to help us make a difference.”

Mr. Ekundayo has already seen positive results. He has been working with traditional birth attendants who help with at-home deliveries in rural communities to help make sure this essential medicine reaches the families who need it. His company is also exporting the gel to countries across Africa and Haiti, and Mr. Ekundayo says Drugfield has experienced marked improvement in the quality of all the products it produces.

But for Mr. Ekundayo, it’s not about the bottom line. He is working to increase the supply of this essential medicine to reach more families in need through partnerships with other global health organizations, such as USAID and UNICEF that work to improve the health of vulnerable populations.

The USP partnership benefits other manufacturers in Africa as well. Building on experiences, USP has been able to help Kenya locally produce chlorhexidine. According to Mr. Ekundayo this type of collaboration and support “will have tremendous impact in developing countries.”

Mr. Ekundayo’s work in Nigeria illustrates the power manufacturers have to improve the supply of life-saving quality assured medicines by scaling up production and building quality into their manufacturing processes.  “This work has made such a huge difference in the lives of so many,” he says.  And for him, there’s no greater reward.

1 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey, 2013
2 World Health Organization. Global Health Observatory data repository. By case Sepsis and other infectious conditions of the newborn. []
3 Spadacini, Beatrice M. Nigeria Commits to Scaling Up Use of Antiseptic Gel to Reduce Newborn Deaths. (USAID Frontlines, online edition, March/April 2017).