Liberians Overdosing At Home Over Fear of Coronavirus

A doctor examines Saa Bokai, 32, who is hospitalized at the Peace Home Clinic in Neezoe, Somalia Drive from June 20 – 24, 2020. FrontPage Africa/Harry Browne

PAYNESVILLE – Beginning June 9, Mary Jones, a 42-year-old mother of four, took sick for a week. She had sore throat, headache and running stomach, the same symptoms associated with the novel coronavirus. Jones bought drugs from two pharmacies and took them. She thought she would contract coronavirus or be tested for the disease if she went to the hospital. But she did not know she would eventually end up there.

“When I took the medicine I was just feeling dizzy, feeling weak. I couldn’t come to myself.  My husband went and took me to the hospital,” she recalls. “Sometimes when you go to the hospital they will just grab you and say ‘Oh you get coronavirus.’ So [it was] all that one I was thinking about.”

Doctors and nurses at the the Benson Hospital on Duport Road managed to flush out the excess drugs from her body. Then, they gave her medications to break her high fever and treated all of the symptoms she showed. After three days, she was discharged.

Like Jones, many people have overdosed themselves since the outbreak of coronavirus in Liberia. Between March 16—when Liberia recorded its first case of the disease—and July 30, all 20 hospitals and clinics in and around Monrovia contacted by FrontPage Africa recorded a combined130 overdose cases. Liberia has recorded 82 coronavirus deaths from 1,286 cases as of August 24. None of the hospitals and clinics reported a death but health authorities are calling on the public to stop self-treatment as drug overdose can be fatal.  

“Overdose is very dangerous, particularly for pregnant women. If someone’s taking something they are taking it too much or it’s not prescribed, then they can have problem even with their heart. So often, they can have liver dysfunction. They can have kidney problem,” says Dr. Michael Bryant, the medical director of the ELWA Hospital, which recorded five cases from March 20 to May 31. “People should not be too afraid of COVID-19 and not come to the hospital, especially when they have difficulty in breathing. It’s very important to come to the hospital.” 

The five cases ELWA recorded were the lowest of number of the cases among the 20 hospitals and clinics within the four-and-a-half-month period all the cases were reported. But they were some of the most critical ones. Two patients arrived in coma, one was wracked with a convulsion and another vomited vehemently, according to Bryant.

Benson Hospital—where Jones was treated—recorded 35 cases, the most FrontPage Africa heard. Peace Home Clinic in Neezoe on Somalia Drive reported 25 cases between April 1 and May 3, and Genesis Clinic on the Old Road, 15 from March 19 to May 31, the second the third-highest, respectively.

A good number of cases were also reported by the More Grace Medical Clinic on the Roberts Field highway (10 cases, March 18 – May 30), Fredai Medical and Eye Clinic in Police Academy (15, March 17 – July 30) and Afro Medical clinic in 72nd (seven, April 15 – June 30).   

“When they come, they are always weak. Some of them [have] rashes. Some of them [have] their tongue getting bigger,” explains Bacon Kanneh, the officer-in-charge at the Peace Home clinic. 

“Some of them, even the next day you do their test, you may not see anything much but because of the fear, by the time they feel their skin [gets]warm a little bit or cold, they will go on doing their own prescription,” says Love Kolleh, the officer-in-charge of the Genesis clinic. “It isn’t supposed to be so. If it is malaria, based on the lab result …you’ll determine how to treat the person.”

Peace Hope Medicine Clinic in at Neezoe junction recorded 25 cases of over-the-counter drug overdose between April 1 and March 31. FrontPage Africa/Harry Browne

Being your own doctor may be risky for people, but it is welcome news for drugs stores and pharmacies. A number of them interviewed by FrontPage Africa say their sales have climbed since the outbreak of the virus. 

Sales at the Solution Medicine Store in the 72nd have almost doubled since mid-March, discloses Musa Kamara, a dispenser here. Before the pandemic, it sold an average L$4,000. Now it sells L$7,000.

“People are buying more and more, Kamara tells me. “They are not really sick but they are buying it to keep. They are buying antibiotic, amoxicillin and the malaria drugs.” 

Things are not that good for New Orient medicine store at New Matadi junction as Solution of 72nd but are still fine.

“Before COVID-19, I used to make LD3,500 – LD3,800 now I am making LD4,000 – LD4,500,” says Mohammed Swarry, its owner. “It’s like those that used to buy before and those that are afraid to go to the hospital now have been added to those that [are now] buying from us.” 

‘Don’t be your own doctor’

The Pharmacy Board of Liberia—the government institution that regulates pharmacies and drug stores—blames some pharmacists and dispensers for the number of overdose cases. It says they are selling different drugs to people for the same ailment, a practice medical practitioners call polypharmacy. There has been no study on drug overdose in Liberia but the Board affirms it is happening. It announces it will conduct a study and raise awareness on the menace in two weeks.

“We have to talk with the proprietors, stakeholders so that they will not do polypharmacy,” points out Menmon Dunnah, the registrar general of the Board. “We have to warn them against polypharmacy. I know you want the cash but if one person comes and they want three, four, five medications, tell them ‘Hey, please be careful.’ [People] must understand that there is limitation. If you are going there with a hardcode prescription, you are causing damage to yourself it is a critical situation.”

Now one week after her treatment for overdose, Jones is well now. She has returned to her salon at her home and is braiding a woman’s hair. Other customers are waiting.

“I feel alright,” she tells me, wearing a huge smiley face. “I learned lots of lessons, and the lesson I learned is that whenever you sick it is better you go to the hospital. Don’t be your own doctor. They did not give me COVID-19.” 

This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives Land Rights and Climate Change Reporting Project. Funding is provided by the American World Jewish Service. The funder had no say in the story’s content.