FLAWS IN THE NATIONAL HEALTH BILL 2014 – Sonnie Ekwowusi

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There are too many troubling national issues in Nigeria today competing for space that one runs the risk of even overlooking the most critical issues that require urgent attention. For example, the National Health Bill is a very critical national issue requiring urgent attention. Health is wealth. It is only when you are alive that you can, for example, discuss politics, economy, Boko Haram and all that. Dead men don’t speak from the grave. It is inconceivable that in this age of astonishing medical breakthrough many Nigerians are still dying of preventable diseases. That is why the country’s health challenges, like the controversial Obamacare, merits eloquent public commentary.

You may be well aware that the Senate has passed the National Health Bill 2014 into law. Likewise the House of Representatives. The two Houses are now set to harmonize the Bill before sending it to President Jonathan for his assent.

But sadly enough, the National Health Bill 2014 (NHB 2014) is flawed. Little wonder it is mired in the most simmering controversy. First: the NHB 2014 is not substantially different from the controversial National Health Bill 2008 and National health Bill 2012 which the late President Umaru Yar’Adua and President Jonathan respectively refused to sign because they were adjudged to be perverse, discriminatory, inchoate and self-serving. Second and most importantly: the NHB 2014 is completely at variance with the agreed conclusions at the stakeholders’ Public Hearing on the National Health Bill. You will recall that on Monday 11th February 2013 the Senate organised a Public Hearing on the NHB 2014 at Room 231 of the Senate Building. It was well attended by different stakeholders which included the Nigerian Medical Council (NMA), National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives (NANNM); Association of Radiographers of Nigeria (ARN); society of Physiotherapy (NSN); Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigeria; Association of Medical Laboratory Scientists of Nigeria (AMLSN); National Association of complementary and Alternative medicine; Health Reform Foundation of Nigeria; Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria; Institute of Health Administrators of Nigeria, Nigerian Phisioterpahy Association of Nigeria. The Public Hearing was chaired by Senator Arthur Ifeanyi Okowa, medical doctor, principal sponsor of the Bill, Chairman Senate Committee on Health and a man of exquisite eloquence.

Prior to the commencement of the Public Hearing, Senator Okowa reassured all stakeholders present that their inputs will be accommodated in the final National Health Bill to be adopted by the Senate. And in all fairness, Senator Okowa truly gave all stakeholders the opportunity to make their respective submissions. While some stakeholders wanted some sections of the National Health Bill to be amended, re-couched, delimited or expanded to accommodate their interest, others wanted some sections of the Bill endorsing trafficking in human organs to be entirely expunged from the Bill.

First, the Senate Health Committee should be commended for prohibiting the manipulation of any genetic materials, including genetic material of human gametes, zygotes or embryos, import and export human embryos, as well as conduct any experimentation for human cloning and other purposes.

Having said this, it is very unfortunate and a big paradox that the Senate and the House of representatives have inserted sections 48, 49, 51, and 53 into the NHB 2014 which are aimed at legalizing trafficking in human organs and trading in human tissues like female eggs cells and so forth. Specifically, section 48 (2) “a person shall not remove “tissue” which is not replaceable by natural processes from a person younger than eighteen years”. Obviously this means that a person can remove tissue replaceable by natural processes from persons who are nineteen years and above. This is sad. Section 49 is ambiguously couched and could be greatly abused. It states that a person shall use “tissue” removed or blood or a blood product withdrawn from a living person only for such medical or dental purposes as may be prescribed. To worsen matters, the word, the interpretation of the word “tissue” is not provided in the interpretation section. Sections 51 and 52 are too wide and could lend themselves to great abuse as well. “Removal of tissue” is unqualified. It could mean anything.

You see, we live in an age of high trafficking in human beings and human organs. At the moment Nigeria is one of the leading countries in the world in human trafficking. The statistics are mind-boggling. Not infrequently, it is reported that uncountable number of Nigerians especially young girls and children are trafficked to many unknown destinations where they are used as sex slaves or forced to do all manner of degrading labour. It is on record that some female students of some Nigerian universities are selling their eggs. Sections 48, 49, 51 and 52 will further fuel greater trafficking in human organs and tissues in Nigeria  There is no doubt that it would be difficult for the authorities to resist the manipulations and financial pressures of unscrupulous groups that stand to gain from trafficking in human eggs, tissues and all that. This is a multibillion dollar business worldwide which is very difficult to check or handle especially in a country like Nigeria with ineffective police system and judicial checks or any effective regulatory agency.

Therefore to effectively guard against the said abuses, sections 48, 49, 51 and 53 of the NHB 2014 should be re-couched to expressly and unambiguously prohibit trafficking in human organs and any form of trading in human tissue. Consequently, President Jonathan should withhold his assent to the NHB 2014 pending the rectification of the aforesaid palpable flaws in the Bill. Anything short of this is unacceptable.

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