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Commentary

Fighting Drug Fakes
The New York Times, 12-12-06

This New York Times editorial describes the growing global health risks posed by counterfeit drugs:

Tempted to buy cheap medicines from a pharmacy Web site? Think twice. If the Web site shows no verifiable street address for the pharmacy, there is a 50 percent chance the drugs are counterfeit.

In rich countries, fake medicines mainly come from virtual stores. Elsewhere, they are on the pharmacy shelves. In much of the former Soviet Union, 20 percent of the drugs on sale are fakes. In parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America, 30 percent are counterfeit. The culprits range from mom–and–pop operations processing chalk in their garages to organized–crime networks that buy the complicity of regulators, customs officials and pharmacists.

In Panama, dozens of people died after taking counterfeit drugs made with an industrial solvent. Often counterfeiters put in real ingredients for their smell or taste, but heavily diluted. This has sped the emergence of resistant strains of infections, and is probably a big reason some malaria drugs and antibiotics have lost their power.

Drug counterfeiting can be fought. Five years ago, the majority of Nigeria's drugs were fakes, and the country was a major source of counterfeits abroad. When the Nigerian government donated 88,000 doses of meningitis vaccine to Niger during an epidemic in 1995, the vaccine turned out to be a fake causing more than 2,500 children to die.

Now the possibility that a drug is fake in Nigeria has dropped to 17 percent, according to the World Health Organization. The country's drug control agency is informing people through radio and TV jingles about fake medicines. It has also fired corrupt officials, hired a fleet of inspectors to drop in on pharmacies, banned imports from some 30 companies, and begun prosecuting counterfeiters.

One of the problems Nigeria still faces is that the penalty for counterfeiting medicine is as little as a $70 fine—a small price to pay for a crime that can reap a fortune. All over the developing world, governments treat falsifying medicines as a mere copyright infringement, rather than potential murder.

The W.H.O. has recently set up a task force that brings together many groups that work on counterfeit drugs. It is a start. Multinational drug companies—which have been reluctant to report fakes lest they erode consumer confidence in all drugs—need to do more. An international convention is also needed to establish stiffer penalties for counterfeiting drugs, and marshal more funds and support to fight this deadly crime.



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