Bangladesh locked down, but private drug sellers carry on

 {Photo credit: Raian Amzad/MSH}A client picks up a prescription at a private-sector drug shop in Dhaka, Bangladesh.Photo credit: Raian Amzad/MSH

By Raian Amzad

In Bangladesh, private neighborhood drug sellers are the first point of care for 70% of the population. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the country went into lockdown, the people of Bangladesh depended even more on the safe delivery of products and services from local accredited drug sellers. Despite all odds, they kept their shops open safely.

The Better Health Bangladesh project (BHB), funded by the U.K.’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development office, has been supporting Bangladesh’s Directorate General of Drug Administration since 2018 to accredit these private-sector drug sellers in 32 districts. MSH, which leads the project, began supporting private drug seller accreditation in Tanzania in 2003. The model has since been adopted in a number of countries in Africa and Asia. The medicine vendors receive assessments and training in pharmaceutical practices, such as accurate dispensing, counselling, and other pharmaceutical services. In the first phase of the project, through December 2020, BHB accredited 2,193 retail medicine shops against a target 2,500 (88%).

 

The pandemic presents major challenges

The first case of COVID-19 in Bangladesh was detected on March 8, 2020, inciting panic among the public. While the project had to temporarily suspend in-person field accreditation activities, it switched gears to a new mission: helping the shops run safely so they could continue to provide essential products and services.

BHB trained the medicine vendors in how to protect themselves and their customers with proper use of personal protection equipment (PPE), hand hygiene, and disposal of waste materials. Shop proprietors learned how to decontaminate surfaces, equipment, and materials. The project also made sure shop owners were aware of public health measures to prevent COVID-19 infection, such as social distancing, isolating when necessary, and treatment referrals for themselves and others. Training courses are now delivered entirely online.

The project boosted regular communications with the retail drug sellers via online platforms, including Facebook, to help keep them motivated and updated on evolving COVID-19 safety measures. A monthly newsletter in Bengali also went to all the shops.

“We have to keep our eyes on pandemic news, data, and projections, and then provide staff and end-users with guidance on how to maintain personal protection against the virus. Timely communications have helped us to cope effectively with the ever-changing COVID-19 situation,” says Abul Kalam Azad, BHB Project Director.

 

Private-sector drug sellers deliver critical products and services

Per a survey in July 2021, private drug retailers are continuing to provide regular services throughout the pandemic. Along with selling essential medicines, the vendors conduct basic health monitoring and diagnostic tests, such as body temperature and blood sugar levels. Vendors sell critical COVID-19 supplies like PPE, sanitizers, remsdesivir, oxygen cylinders, and masks, and advise clients on the benefits of masking up and other public health precautions.

Though COVID-19 continues to spread in Bangladesh, the BHB project is continuing to assess drug sellers for accreditation, with the goal of accrediting an additional 4,000 shops by 2022.