The fact that counterfeit medicines - which may be ineffective or even toxic - are now more widely available has become a global problem, largely because of the internet, and is a real danger for patient health.
Compounding the problem is the fact that it is no longer just about lifestyle products, like medicines for erectile dysfunction or weight loss, but now includes prescription medicines for treating chronic and serious diseases such as cardiovascular diseases or cancer which are now available online.
What's wrong with counterfeit medicines?
In the recent Sanofi Fights Against Counterfeit Medicines Report, Sanofi’s Dr Caroline Atlani, director, anti-counterfeiting coordination says: “They don’t contain the expected amount of active ingredient and they don’t meet any of the standard requirements for quality, efficiency and safety.
Read: The full Sanofi Fights Against Counterfeit Medicines Report
So patients run a number of risks: besides the presence of toxic substances, these drugs can be inactive and cause major adverse effects and complications for patients.”
How big is the problem?
While the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 10 to 15 percent of the global drug supply is fake, in Africa fake medicines may account for up to 30% of medicines in circulation.
“The general public is not really aware of the existence of counterfeit medicines and the risks they may incur in certain purchasing situations,” says Dr Atlani in the 2014 report.
A newly released Sanofi commissioned European consumer opinion survey of 5,010 people shows that very few of the Europeans surveyed associate the term ‘counterfeiting’ with medicines (20%).
While the majority (66%) have heard of drug counterfeiting, respondents seem to have little information on the issue of counterfeit medicines: 77% say they have not been adequately informed or are ignorant on the subject.
84% of those surveyed say they have never seen or identified a counterfeit drug although there is a consensus among Europeans about the danger of counterfeit medicines insofar as 96% believe that counterfeit drugs can be and are probably dangerous.
Drug counterfeiting across the globe
In recent years, medicines were the leading counterfeit products seized by European customs, ahead of counterfeit cigarettes (Pharmaceutical Security Institute “2011 situation report”)
Read: Fake cancer medicine seller sentenced in Canada
Other shocking statistics include:
* 1 in 10 drugs sold worldwide is counterfeit; this figure reaches 7 out of 10 in some countries (LEEM 2011)
* $75 billion in 2010: the profits yielded by counterfeit medicines; greater than those derived from drug trafficking (Institute of Research Against Counterfeit Medicines (IRACM)
* For every $1,000 invested, criminals can generate $20,000 in profits from heroin trafficking and $400,000 by trafficking counterfeit medicines.
* As of 22 May 2014, Interpol reported that nearly 200 enforcement agencies across 111 countries have collaborated on Operation Pangea VII targeting criminal networks behind the sale of fake medicines via illicit online pharmacies.
* To date this has resulted in the closure of more than 10,600 websites and the seizure of 9.4 million fake and illicit medicines worth a total of $36 million. (Interpol “Operation Pangea VII”)
Read: Fake malaria and TB drugs kill 700 000 a year
The sale of medicines on the Internet has surged in recent years. While some online pharmacies are legally-established, in certain countries as much as 96% of the websites offering medicines are believed to be operating in blatant defiance of the law.
“These sites offer prescription medicines without requiring a prescription and sell unapproved or falsified products,” says Sanofi’s Dr Rashem Mothilal, Medical Director for South Africa.
“Run by illegal organisations, such structures operate as a network, hiding their true identity or misrepresenting their actual location.”
Spot the fake Viagra Photo: Center for Combating Counterfeit Drugs
According the WHO in 50% of cases, medicines purchased over the Internet from illegal sites that conceal their physical address have been found to be counterfeit.
In industrialised countries with regulatory systems and effective market control mechanisms, the occurrence level is low. However, in many countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and in emerging economies, where the pharmaceutical control system is less regulated, the percentage of counterfeit medicines is higher.
Read: Millions seized in online pharmacy crackdown
Some countries allow and regulate the sale of drugs online (Germany, United States, Netherlands, Portugal, United Kingdom etc.) but in others legislation does not allow it.
Mothilal says that in South Africa, the South African Pharmacy Council only allows it when it is associated with a retail pharmacy under the supervision of a pharmacist.
“However, it is highly illegal for someone to import drugs into South Africa without an import licence, which is effectively what you are doing if you order them online,” he says.
“Sanofi absolutely discourages the South African public from using illegal (other than pharmacies) source of supply,” says Dr Mothilal.
“Consumers need to be aware of the dangers connected with purchasing medicines online with regard to medicine quality, and personal risks.
Read: Counterfeit medicines trade targets Africa's poor
Pharmacists operating as part of a secured distribution system are the only ones allowed to provide medicines to patients.”
When an on-line pharmacy does not comply with the conditions set out by the local legislation, neither the drug quality, origin, or storage and transport conditions can be guaranteed.
Read: Russian gangs are said to be behind illegal drugs scams
Dr Atlani warns that counterfeit medicines can also lead to collective risks, especially due to the emergence of drug-resistance in the case of treatments for infectious diseases with antibiotics or antimalarials.
According to the American Enterprise Institute 100 000 people worldwide die each year because they take branded and generic counterfeit drugs.
In an article in the medical journal The Lancet in mid-2012, it was noted that one third of malaria medicines used in East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are fraudulent.
Dr Mothilal says that it takes collaboration to really fight the counterfeit battle. Sanofi recently signed a partnership with Interpol together with 29 major pharmaceutical companies at a total cost of 4.5 million euros, which covers the creation of the Interpol Pharmaceutical Crime Program focusing on fighting counterfeit medicines and combines training with targeted enforcement actions.
Don't buy online from sites:
* Sites that are located outside of countries that allow and regulate the sale of drugs online
* Sites that don’t indicate any physical address
* Sites that don’t have a license by the relevant state board of pharmacy
* Sites without a licensed pharmacist to answer questions
* Sites that do not require a prescription
US health officials are making a high-tech screening device available in Africa to help spot counterfeit malaria pills
The trade in fake drugs is on the rise
Online impotence drugs are dodgy
The health risks of fake drugs
Image: AP Photo/Elise Amendola