Most of us are accustomed to picking up our prescription medication from the pharmacy without a second thought to its safety or reliability. But imagine if your child was ill and the medication you picked up was fake and caused your child to not only not recover but possibly die. That’s the terrifying situation faced by millions of parents around the world.
The spread of fake medicines is at pandemic proportions. It’s estimated that over one million people die each year from fake drugs, according to Interpol, the world police agency. Peter Pitts, president of The Center for Medicine in the Public Interest puts the number of deaths in China alone at 300,000 annually.
Last year, European officials seized over 34 million fake meds in two months while Irish drug enforcement confiscated 1.7 million pounds of counterfeit and illegal drugs.
In April of 2015, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported that scientists inspected medications from around the world and found very disturbing news:
“Scientists inspected the quality of about 16,800 samples of anti-malarials, anti-tuberculosis medicines, antibiotics and anti-leishmaniasis drugs and reported from 9 to 41 percent failed to meet the specifications. Seven separate studies were carried out, primarily in low-resource settings, and included samples from public and private sources.”
World Health Organization 2017 Report
The new World Health Organization (WHO) report on the public health impact of substandard and falsified medical products, estimates that up to 158,000 people die each year from taking fake malaria medication in sub-Sahara Africa. Counterfeit drugs may kill up to 169,000 children (ages 0-5) worldwide from pneumonia.
Shockingly, the study’s executive summary indicates that those suffering death or ill effects from the use of counterfeit drugs may be sorely underrepresented. The statistical and methodological models used in the study “…are likely to under represent the true impact of substandard and falsified medical products in both disease areas, owing to the lack of exhaustive data and the challenges of incorporating all impact factors into a single model.”
In other words, things are probably a lot worse. There is not yet enough international standardized agreement and cooperation to accurately reflect the true scope of the dangers of fake drugs.
Fake drugs are putting all of us at risk. They are a massive global public health threat.
What is a Fake Drug?
Simply put, fake drugs may:
- have the correct ingredients but in the wrong amounts
- have very little of the correct ingredients
- not have any of the correct ingredients
- may be misbranded and sold for incorrect purposes.
Fake drugs are meant to fool innocent people who then may face potentially dire consequences.
What Is the Scope of the Problem?
Medicinal forgeries are a growing and pervasive threat to worldwide health, especially in the battle against tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV/AIDS in the developing world.
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The Poor and the Powerless
Of serious concern is that most of those suffering from the indignities of counterfeit medications are the poor and the powerless. It is in the developing world that this plague is most damaging. Legions of men, woman and children who lack resources and societal protections are suffering needlessly and are dying prematurely.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that “Counterfeiting…is most common in countries where there are few or no rules about making drugs. An estimated 10%–30% of medicines sold in developing countries are counterfeit.”
Many of these nations have little to no infrastructure to deal with the problem. It is estimated by policy experts Amir Attaran and Roger Bate that 2/3 of the world’s nations have no medical regulatory infrastructure or have only incomplete and ineffectual regulation.
The world’s drug supply is under siege by organized crime.
Fueling the worldwide plague is the profitability of selling fake drugs. It’s estimated to be a 75-billion-dollar market. According to the Economist: “For criminals, fake pharma is lucrative, and the penalties are usually low. Indeed, the drug supply-chain is a cheat’s paradise.”
Criminals can easily make millions selling fraudulent drugs that are high in demand or too expensive for consumers to purchase. It happens regularly says Michael Deats of WHO: “…if a shortage occurs, hospitals and clinics will step outside the normal supply chain and the (criminals) exploit the situation.”
Desperate People do Desperate Things
Desperate people, who are sick and poor are the primary victims of criminal drug counterfeiting. They live mostly in underdeveloped rural areas around the globe with little access to advanced medical care.
Local pharmacies are often stocked with cheap, substandard, or fake medications. There is little recourse but to buy what is available and affordable. Unfortunately, this often leads to watching loved ones succumb to malaria, tuberculosis, AIDs, and other treatable diseases.
The Development of Super-bugs
Fake drugs with either substandard and no proper ingredients promote mutations. Resistance to malaria and tuberculosis treatments is becoming widespread globally. This could be disastrous to the ongoing efforts to eradicate these diseases. For malaria alone, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that fake drugs are associated with up to 20 percent of the one million malaria deaths worldwide each year.
The tragedy of super-bug proliferation is directly linked to the growth of fake medicines.
Actions Must be Taken
Fake drugs are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. The number may even be in the millions. The poor and powerless living in under-resourced environments are victimized most often by the unscrupulous behavior of organized criminals.
The situation is made worse by the often-opposing interests of pharmaceutical companies, national governments, international organizations, and enforcement agencies. This lack of coordination and concerted effort leads to unnecessary ill health and loss of human life along with the development of super bugs that undermines years of valiant efforts to eradicate treatable global diseases.
Efforts are being made but more must be done. Middle and low-income countries continue to suffer. People are dying every day.
Andrea Bomo, a journalist from Cameroon, puts the need for cooperation succinctly:
“Everybody has their role to play: the media, NGOs, pharmaceutical industry and the civil society. The government also has a big responsibility: providing equal access to medicines to the population, raising awareness about the danger of fake medicines in the population and at different levels of the supply chain, taking regulatory and strong legal actions to limit the infiltration of fake drugs into the market and supporting local and international initiatives fighting for the safety and health of the population.”
For efforts to work, poorly resourced nations need assistance from developed countries and international organizations to bolster their drug regulatory and enforcement agencies. If these institutions remain weak, the creators of fake medicines will continue to flourish and profit from the misfortune of millions of innocent people.
Pharmaceutical companies need to look beyond their parochial patent and intellectual property worries and take seriously the damage being done by fake medications globally. They are important partners in the efforts to limit, if not eradicate the plague of fake medications.
Less resourced nations must have access to affordable medications that are justly distributed and available to those in need. Without such availability and access, the seeds of criminal activity will continue to grow and flourish, and people will continue to die.
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