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According to World Health Organization (WHO) studies, 20% of the approximately one million worldwide deaths due to malaria can be directly attributed to counterfeit medication.
Although an enormous worldwide problem, Southeast Asia seems to be the epicenter of the new counterfeit drug trade. Dr. Paul Newton of the Oxford University Center for Tropical Medicine in Vientiane, Laos, recently headed a team that conducted a study assessing how widespread the problem had become in the region. Shockingly, more than 50% of the malaria drugs tested were fake.
Dr. Howard Zucker, the WHO Chief of Health Technology and Pharmaceuticals said of these recent findings, “The impact on people’s lives behind these figures is devastating” due to this “epidemic of counterfeiting” (International Herald Tribune). A specific example of how this directly impacts individuals was the recent case in the Myanmar province (Burma) in which a charity purchased 100,000 tablets of the new “miracle” malaria drug artesunate, only to find that all of the pills were useless counterfeits.
The consensus among experts is that China is the primary source for the counterfeit medicines, and Southeast Asia is not the only target. In September 2006, Nigerian authorities intercepted $25,000 worth of counterfeit medicine in a shipment of purses from China.
According to Dr. Newton, “They’re not being produced in somebody’s kitchen. They’re produced on an industrial scale” (ibid.).
Modern technology has given counterfeiters the tools to mimic authentic drugs by copying their high-tech foil packaging, imprinted markings and, in some cases, even logos only visible under ultraviolet light. Dr. Newton’s team has also found that many of the fake pills and packaging are incredibly hard to distinguish from the authentic ones, even by discerning experts. Some counterfeits contain trace amounts of the authentic medicine. As a result, these will produce false positives when common dye tests are used in the field.
This reality has dire consequences. The use of these watered-down medicines has allowed certain diseases to adapt, and there is evidence of new “super bugs” and resistant strains never seen before.
Regrettably, malaria counterfeits often contain acetaminophen or other fever reducers to temporarily fool physicians into thinking they are authentic.
The new Rogers-Green bill, recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, imposes tougher penalties for those who manufacture or distribute counterfeit drugs. Under current law, counterfeiting money carries a sentence five times that of counterfeiting medicine.
U.S. President George W. Bush’s new $1.2 billion federal malaria initiative routes money directly to Western pharmaceutical companies who manufacture medicine. They then ship the drugs directly to health organizations and charities around the world.
The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria gives money directly to governments to purchase medications and then follows up with audits of the medications bought, to guard against counterfeits. The problem? According to the International Herald Tribune, 80% of the nations’ governments where the medicine is used lack the technology to detect “high-tech” counterfeits.
Even the Chinese Food and Drug Administration has vowed to “crack down” on this growing problem. However, Ohio State University law professor Daniel Chow expresses the consensus among experts. China may pursue those responsible for deaths due to fake medications in China, but will sluggishly pursue exports of counterfeit medicine or their related deaths outside its own borders.
David Fernyhough, a counterfeiting expert for Hill & Associates, which assesses risk-management and counterfeiting in the region for Western Pharmaceutical Companies, provides a bleak view of the current state of affairs. He has found that fake pharmaceutical networks “mirror the old heroin networks” that have flowed through Thailand and hidden money in the financial markets of Hong Kong for many decades.
His conclusion: “The problem is simply so massive that no amount of enforcement is going to stop it” (ibid.).
As the number of cases and the complexity of the diseases facing our globe continue to increase, will mankind ever find a solution to its health problems? In a world in which many see the suffering and distress of others as an opportunity to profit, is there a reasonable expectation that the global counterfeit medicine trade will ever decline?
Humanity looks forward with optimism—but often times the evidence of mounting worldwide issues seems to indicate intervention is needed from an outside source…