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Fake It till We Make a Change

In reality, there is something that is far worse than ineffective medicine: drugs that not only don’t work, but also cause serious harm.

By JONNATHA MAYBERRY, Associate Editor, Chem.Info

Nothing’s worse than being put on prescription after prescription while your physician attempts to find a medicine to cure all of your symptoms, right? Wrong. In reality, there is something that is worse than ineffective medicine: drugs that not only don’t work, but also cause serious harm.

The current counterfeit drug crisis is nothing short of an epidemic. And, although this epidemic doesn’t seem to be growing, it doesn’t seem to be slowing either. Counterfeit drugs’ characteristics are wide-ranging: “Counterfeit products may include products without the active ingredient, with an insufficient or excessive quantity of the active ingredient, with the wrong active ingredient, or with fake packaging,” the FDA’s website explains.

In April, the FDA found that some U.S. medical practices had purchased counterfeit cancer medicine from foreign sources. Lab tests “confirmed that a counterfeit version of Roche’s Altuzan,” which was not even FDA-approved in the U.S., contained no active ingredient. In May, the FDA warned that a counterfeit version of Teva’s Adderall, which contained active ingredients typically used to treat acute pain, was being sold online. These cases were some of the most recent, but countless other cases preceded them.

Although counterfeit drugs can be found in the U.S., they are more common in some other countries. Roger Bate describes the epidemic in his blog, “The Deadly World of Fake Medicines.” He explains that he “first came across dangerous drugs while evaluating HIV and malaria projects in Southern Africa,” where “patients were dying because the pills did not provide the needed medicine.”

The counterfeit medicine was not only dangerous because it was lacking the proper active ingredients, but also because it contained “chalk, talcum powder, road paint and occasionally dangerous heavy metals.”

Even though many people die from taking counterfeit medicines, Bate says that counterfeiters are often not trying to kill patients. Instead, “they are out to make money, and simply do not care who gets hurt, or even dies, in the process.” Even if a consumer’s death is an accidental byproduct of scammers’ greed, governments and regulatory agencies should spare no expense to make sure that counterfeiters are unable to peddle their products.

For consumers, avoiding counterfeits can be as simple as steering clear of Internet pharmacies and opting for state-licensed pharmacies, since scammers often make counterfeit sites look deceptively legitimate. When it comes to regulations, however, the water is a little murkier.

“U.S. authorities are limited in combating illegal trades outside the United States,” Bate says. “International law is currently inadequate to combat international fake drug rings, and there is a need for a global treaty against such products,” he asserts.

Following the old supply-and-demand rule, it seems that Bate is on the right track. Even if the U.S. stops buying counterfeits, if other countries are still lax on regulations, counterfeits will continue to be manufactured. If a global treaty is created and paired with stricter regulations, counterfeiters may be left with no market for their products. A little teamwork may be all that’s necessary to stop counterfeiters in their tracks.

Will countries be able to band together in order to successfully eliminate counterfeit drugs, or is the war on counterfeits a never-ending battle? Let me know your take by emailing me at [email protected].