Counterfeit (or fake) medicines is a growing problem and occurs throughout the world. Counterfeiting is more common in countries where regulations and laws governing the production of pharmaceuticals is limited or lacking. The exact extend of the problem is difficult to measure, however the World Health Organisation (WHO) has produced some estimates:
- Most industrialised countries with effective regulatory systems and market control (eg USA, most of EU, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand) have a low proportion, i.e. less than 1% of market value.
- Many countries in Africa and parts of Asia and Latin America have areas where more than 30% of the medicines on sale can be counterfeit, while other developing markets have less than 10% overall. A reasonable range is between 10% and 30%.
- Many of the former Soviet republics have a proportion of counterfeit medicines which is above 20% of market value - this falls into the developing country range.
- The US based Centre for Medicines in the Public Interest predicts that counterfeit medicine sales will reach US$ 75 billion globally in 2010, an increase of more than 90% from 2005.
A wide range of counterfeit medicines are available and include:
- cholesterol lowering medicines
- blood pressure medicines
- cancer treatments
- antimalarial medicines
- HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis treatment
The quality of counterfeit medicines will vary and are dangerous for several reasons; they may contain toxic ingredients that are harmful, contain little or no active ingredient therefore becoming ineffective, be wrongly labelled or contain the wrong ingredients.
The regular use of counterfeit medicines can lead to illness and death because the medicines may not provide any therapeutic benefit or have unknown side effects.
What should arouse suspicion?
- The medicine is very cheap compared to the normal cost
- The medicine has a strange taste, odour or is a strange colour
- The medicine is crumbly or breaks apart easily
- Poor quality packaging or packages with spelling errors
Advice for travellers
Whenever possible, travellers should take sufficient medicine with them to cover the duration of the trip. It is particularly important that travellers are aware that medicines used for the prevention and treatment of malaria are often subject to counterfeiting in countries where malaria is a serious risk.
In the event that further medicines need to be obtained abroad (eg if a trip is extended, medicines are lost or stolen or the planned itinerary is changed) travellers can take steps to reduce the risk from counterfeit medicines
- Carry a copy of any prescription medicines that you are taking. It should include both the proprietary and brand name of the medicine and also the manufacturer. This applies also to any prescribed antimalarial medicines that you are taking.
- Buy medicines only from a reputable pharmacy and obtain a receipt. Do not obtain medicines from an open market.
- Ask the pharmacist about the active ingredient in the medicine; check that it is the same as your own medicine.
- Make sure that the medicine is in its original packaging. Inspect the package closely, poor quality printing, spelling or labelling may suggest counterfeiting.