In the world of life-saving drugs, a growing epidemic of deadly fakes

Asia is seeing an "epidemic of counterfeits" of life-saving drugs, experts say, and the problem is spreading. Malaria medicines have been particularly hard hit; in a recent sampling in Southeast Asia, 53 per cent of the anti-malarials bought were fakes.

Bogus antibiotics, tuberculosis drugs, AIDS drugs and even meningitis vaccines have also been found:

  • Estimates of the deaths caused by fakes run from tens of thousands a year to 200,000 or more.

  • The World Health Organisation has estimated that a fifth of the one million annual deaths from malaria would be prevented if all medicines for it were genuine and taken properly.

    "The impact on people's lives behind these figures is devastating," said Dr. Howard A. Zucker, the organisation's chief of health technology and pharmaceuticals.

    Internationally, a prime target of counterfeiters now is artemisinin, the newest miracle cure for malaria, says Dr. Paul N. Newton of Oxford University's Centre for Tropical Medicine in Vientiane, Laos.

  • His team, which found that more than half the malaria drugs it bought in Southeast Asia were counterfeit, discovered 12 fakes being sold as artesunate pills made by Guilin Pharma of China.

  • A charity working in Myanmar bought 100,000 tablets and discovered that all were worthless.

    "They're not being produced in somebody's kitchen," Dr. Newton said. "They're produced on an industrial scale."

    China is the source of most of the world's fake drugs, experts say.

    "The problem is simply so massive that no amount of enforcement is going to stop it," said David Fernyhough, a counterfeiting expert at the Hong Kong offices of Hill & Associates, a risk-management firm hired by Western companies to foil counterfeiters.

    Source: Donald G. McNeil Jr., In the World of Life-Saving Drugs, a Growing Epidemic of Deadly Fakes, New York Times, February 20, 2007.

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    FMF Policy Bulletin/ 27 February 2007
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