Op-ed: False Drugs, False Hope, Real Danger

According to the World Health Organisation, more than half a million people died from malaria in 2012 and 20 per cent of those deaths are attributed to false or substandard medication.  Most of those deaths occurred in Africa, where a child dies every minute from malaria.

Adding to the tragedy is the fact that malaria is both treatable and curable. Sadly, there are those who prey on the poor and vulnerable and steal their money for the false promise of treatment.  That’s what counterfeiters do when they manufacture and sell counterfeit medicines.  A person taking counterfeit malaria medicine doesn’t realize they’re being denied life-saving treatment which can lead to suffering and a painful death.

As we mark World Anti-Counterfeiting Day today, it is imperative that we take this opportunity to increase awareness that will help us to better respond to the trans-national threat to human health and safety of falsified and substandard medications.

In 2012, the US National Institute of Health found that up to 40 per cent of medicines of some countries in Africa are fake or substandard.  It is also estimated that 30 per cent of antimalarial drugs in Southeast Asia are fakes and that annually 700,000 people die of malaria and tuberculosis medication that is falsified or substandard.  These figures are significant and pose a real danger to public health.

Counterfeit medications pose a threat to those who take these ineffective medications, and they also put all our lives at risk.  Insufficient active pharmaceutical ingredients help give rise to drug-resistant strains of diseases. Counterfeits with sub-therapeutic levels of active ingredients foster drug-resistant strains of malaria and tuberculosis that present an even greater threat to public health and safety.

Counterfeiters are killing people and are making deadly diseases like malaria even stronger.  So what can we do to stop them?

Combating counterfeit medicines requires a whole-of-society approach. Health authorities cannot do it alone.

They need cooperation from customs, police, the judiciary, manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, health professionals, and the patients themselves.  Ensuring that the medicine you buy at your local pharmacy is genuine and not counterfeit requires collaboration and coordination among all stakeholders.

This is a battle that everyone must fight together.  Regional approaches and harmonisation efforts are essential.

As we reflect on World Anti-Counterfeiting Day, let’s take this opportunity to increase awareness and take action.

We will be most effective in addressing this tragic epidemic by recognizing that counterfeit medicines pose a real danger to public health and by working together to put a stop to them.

Article was featured in The Malay Mail Newspaper, June 4, 2014.