With the theme of this year's Menstrual Hygiene Day as 'It is Time for Action', Omolabake Fasogbon writes that it's time for the government, regulators and stakeholders to rise to the challenge of curbing the infiltration of substandard sanitary pads in the market
Menstruation, as defined, is the process where a woman discharges blood and other materials from the lining of the uterus at intervals, of about one lunar month from puberty to menopause, except during pregnancy.
It is considered as one of the most normal biological processes as well as a key sign of reproduction. According to a reproductive expert, Dr. John Ongech, regular menstruation is a woman's body way of saying that there is hormonal balance within the body, the absence of which is a pointer to a problem, most especially, infertility.
Be it as it may, this natural and monthly reality can also be a causative factor of reproductive system's disease in women, most often traced to improper and poor menstrual hygiene management, experts have said.
Poor Menstrual Hygiene
Menstrual hygiene management (MHM), as captured by United Nations Children's Fund, (UNICEF) and World Health Organisation (WHO) is the comprehensive access to safe and healthy sanitary pad, adequate information, preparation, and support with which to manage menstruation in a healthy, safe, and dignified manner.
Globally, poor MHM has been a grave challenge and Nigeria is no exception. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), report estimates that one in ten girls in Sub-Saharan Africa misses school during their menstrual cycle, beyond this, gap in MHM has been recognised as one of the impeding factors to social and economic empowerment and growth.
It is against this backdrop also that a German based nongovernment organisation, WASH United, set aside May 28 as the Menstrual Hygiene Day in 2014, to raise awareness on the importance of good menstrual hygiene management worldwide and break taboos around menstruation amongst others. Ever since 2014, the day has been observed annually by all countries.
The Nigerian Situation
In Nigeria, in addition to the taboos and myths surrounding menstruation, Deputy Head of WASH department of Action Against Hunger, Patricia Obroh identified MHM issues confronting women and girls as: low availability of hygienic sanitary towels, high cost of disposal pads, poor knowledge of menstrual hygiene management and insufficient access to safe and private sanitation services.
Moreso, findings from a study conducted by UNICEF showed that availability and adequacy of water, sanitation and hygiene, WASH, adequacy impacted girls' experience of menstruation in Nigeria.
Reports from UNICEF/WHO Joint Monitoring Program(JMP) further revealed that "Nigeria's overall improved water coverage rate is 69 per cent (126,630,870 people) of the estimated population of 183,523,000 people, (United Nations' population Division 2014), while improved sanitation coverage is 29 per cent (53,221,670 people) Unimproved water sources are, therefore, used by 31 per cent while use of shared toilets, unimproved toilets and open defecation account for 71 per cent of sanitation practices".
More worrisome lately is the influx of fake and substandard menstrual pad finding its way into the market from both within and foreign countries. Nigerian alone boasts of over 12 sanitary pad brands, including popular ones like Always, Ladycare, Lady Sept and Kotex® that has just entered the space.
However, quite a good number of these popular brands are battling adulteration, while unbranded ones, many of which do not meet up with standards and whose sources are untraceable, is another menace confronting menstruation safety in the country.
Narrating his ordeal, a retail and wholesale operator in Abule Egba, Lagos, simply known as Mr John, shared with THISDAY how he fell victim of a fake product distributor and ran into loss of about a million naira.
He said," I was introduced by a friend who connected me to this sanitary pad distributor of one of the popular brands, he came with a very attractive price and because the deal was cheap, I fell for the offer quickly. It was not until I started selling that consumers were returning with complaints about poor quality and itches in their private part that I became suspicious.
"I didn't want to believe it initially but when the complaints kept on coming, I was forced to open a pack and behold, it wasn't what I used to know. The texture, smell and colour, I mean everything was not well with it."
John further called on regulatory authorities to look into the situation which has been spoiling business for him and many other colleagues.
Implications of Substandard Pads
According to medical experts, sanitary pads for menstrual hygiene have a layered design consisting of a fluid permeable surface (topsheet), an absorbent core, and an impermeable backing with adhesive.
Most sanitary pads are said to employ cellulose-based cores which describes the safety evaluation of a menstrual pad with an emollient-treated topsheet and a novel polymeric foam core.
Medical expert, Dr Joseph Mercola said, "the skin, being the largest organ in your body is also the thinnest. Less than 1/10th of an inch separates the body from potential toxins. Worse yet, your skin is highly permeable -- especially the skin around the vaginal area, not to mention inside the vagina itself.This is why attention needs to be paid to the ingredients used in tampons and sanitary pads."
While speaking on the health hazards of substandard sanitary pad, a gynaecologist,
Dr Adolphus Essien, said, "many cases of fatal sepsis have been recorded due to this. Some of these pads contain pesticides and herbicides, which when used, directly enters the blood stream and interferes with your internal organs. In addition to skin irritation, unsafe sanitary pads make women susceptible to all kinds of life-threatening reproductive diseases.
" And yes, they are cancer causing. Of course, these pads will not cause cancer right away, but using them again and again for years can potentially increase your risk of cancer. Some sanitary napkins carry BPA with other chemicals, which over time, enter the human body and interfere with the reproductive system. They are also major cause of hygiene related diseases."
Wake up Call to Government, Regulators
While the preference for sanitary pad, tampons and other healthy options over traditional materials like tissue and reusable cloth pads became dominant due to the health hazards posed by the latter, the spread of fake menstrual pad is gradually threatening the importance and healthy options attached to sanitary napkin.
Indeed, the Federal Government and other international bodies have been trying their best to bridge MHM wide gaps in Nigeria, especially as the 2030 deadline for the sustainable development goals is drawing closer. Notwithstanding, the spread of fake absorbent materials, especially, sanitary pads, has received little or less attention.
Years back and even recently, there has been news of the circulation of fake sanitary pad in foreign countries, most especially China. The positive news is that perpetrators are usually brought to book and make public, which in the process scared prospective adulterators.
Very recently, attention was drawn to a video on social media where two unidentified men were caught placing unbranded sanitary towels into the package of a popular brand. This has left many people concerned about their health.
In Nigeria, not much seizure, interception or convicted cases have been heard about this nefarious act which raises question as to what the regulators are doing in this regard, despite the spread of the substandard product.
Several calls and messages put across to Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON), to react to this issue yielded no result despite promises to get back to our reporter.
The Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) on its part said it has no knowledge of fake sanitary pad and as such has no record of arrest and interception.
But the National Agency for Food Drug and Control (NAFDAC), confirmed seizure of fake sanitary pad including baby diaper in recent times and explained the steps it has and is still taking to arrest the menace.
According to the Director, Public Affairs, NAFDAC, Dr Abubakar Jimoh, who provided THISDAY with a long list of seized brands, the agency has been engaged with continuous mop-up exercises to remove adulterated products from circulation.
He said, "We have made culprits to make payment of administrative charges to serve as deterrent to others. We have also arrested, detained and prosecuted offenders in very serious cases."
To the Head of Marketing, Kimberly Clark, West Central Africa, Kemi Saliu, this is a reality that needed to be fought by all stakeholders including the government, regulators, consumers, sellers and manufacturers.
Saliu who spoke on the sidelines of the launch of Kotex range of sanitary products in Lagos recently, stated that the company had identified the challenge, hence, its interest in the space to arrest the menace of fake sanitary pads.
She said," Women are getting more exposed and they have come to see reasons why they should embrace healthier choices during their period other than the old method. However, they are now being discouraged as a result of low standard period supplies in the market. We have seen a lot of them, this is why we at Kimberly-Clark are pulling all stops to avoid same thing with our brand. The quality of our products remains the same in US, Kenya, Europe and other market.
" With the launch of our new range of sanitary pads in normal, long and extra-long as well as tampons in normal and super, we have more quality products on offer to complement the Huggies brand in Nigeria. The new range ensures that young women can be rest assured that they now have a product focused on delivering high quality sanitary protection.
"This is because the company has a track record of ensuring strong operational procedures to ensure that every product from our facilities meets proper international specifications, requirements and most importantly, the needs of our discerning global consumers".
As a way out, Saliu suggested a collaborative effort to tackle the menace. In particular, she felt the consumers has a lot to do to correct the system.
"At this juncture, consumers need to speak up. In case they purchase any fake period supplies, they should take necessary steps and make it open until it gets to relevant authorities".
To the consumers also, Jimoh of NAFDAC, offered helpful tips that can put them on a safe side at the point of purchase.
He said, "consumers are advised to check the seal of the products to confirm its air tight in order to detect exposure to moisture. Again, they should check out for unusual discoloration as a result of microbial contamination. They should also look at the label for the source and possible spelling mistakes, absorbing and fluid retention capacity are important qualities and lastly, registration by NAFDAC is the surest way to a good buy."
Meanwhile, Dr Essien Adolphus urged government to check storage, investigate suspected cases of vaginitis from sanitary towels and encourage more hygienic packaging from onset. "It's a very serious problem that must be tackled headlong", he maintained.