Counterfeit Drug Cases on the Rise

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Officials attending the World Health Assembly in Geneva are told that 2007 showed a sharp increase in incidents of counterfeit medications. Greater access to sophisticated technology is helping drive the rise in sales of fake drugs.


This week, health officials from 193 countries are meeting in Geneva. One problem they face is what to do about counterfeit drugs. A World Health Organization report found more of them in the marketplace last year.

NPR's Brenda Wilson has this story on what that could mean for the global fight against disease.

BRENDA WILSON: Globally, the amount of counterfeit medicines has increased by 20%. In 2007, there were more than 1500 incidents in which bad medicines were detected. These may have been copies of medicines that didn't contain enough of the active ingredient, or mislabeled medications. The incidents ranged from finding a single bad pill to a batch of pills in a shipping container.

Dr. Valerio Reggi, the head of WHO's anti-counterfeiting task force, says no counterfeiter would manufacture one pill or even a container of pills.

Dr. VALERIO REGGI (World Health Organization): Whatever the quantity that you find, for every drug that you find, it means at least one batch. And one batch usually is between 30 and 60,000 tablets, for example.

WILSON: Why has it increased? The Internet, the growth in international commerce, and easy access to sophisticated technology. There are inspections, but looking for fakes is like looking for - well, yes, a needle in a haystack.

Mr. REGGI: Finding cases is perfectly casual; it can reflect a bigger number of cases and your better capacity to detect them. Or do you have one incident that gives you intelligence to find more.

WILSON: Counterfeits are often found when the medicines don't work as expected; and the worst case, patients die. Too little of or the lack of one ingredient and a counterfeited medication can lead to a hundreds of deaths. That was a concern of the nonprofit group Africa Fighting Malaria. They wanted to know just how good were anti-malaria drugs in six of Africa's large cities. So they sent a team in to buy some and tested the active ingredients. Amir Attaran of the University of Ottawa says they found problems with the sole remaining effective therapy against malaria - Artemesinin.

Mr. AMIR ATTARAN (University of Ottawa): We find that over a third of the medicines tested didn't make the grade. Probably a large number are counterfeit. We can't say that with certainty, but we know at least that they're substandard, which means they won't treat these patients. They won't treat these children and save them from a fatal disease.

WILSON: It's possible they were just not stored properly. Some were being sold years past the expiration date. Africa Fighting Malaria says policies to make medicine more widely available need to be more vigorously monitored by international health organizations. WHO's Reggi says it's not easy for developing countries to keep counterfeit medications off the market.

Mr. REGGI: It's a matter of having the resources and the capacity and the physical courage to go around a country and identify those unauthorized outlets and do something about that. Very often you need to go with an army of policeman because otherwise your inspectors risk their lives.

WILSON: The best defense, he says, are stronger regulations on importing, licensing, and selling pharmaceuticals in developing countries. And he calls for campaigns to increase public awareness of the dangers of buying medical products from an unknown source, whether online or at the local market stall.

Brenda Wilson, NPR News.

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