Counterfeit Drugs: Africa’s Silent Public Health Crisis
4/28/2011 12:17:10 AM -
On Tuesday, April 12th senior health officials from seven African countries came together with representatives from the U.S. Government and the pharmaceutical industry to talk about solutions to a public health challenge that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year: counterfeit pharmaceuticals.
The World Health Organization (WHO) began collecting information on counterfeit drugs in the 1980s and over the past 30 years, as counterfeit technology has advanced, so too have the number of counterfeit and substandard drugs on the world market. Counterfeit medicines are defined by the WHO as those that are 'deliberately or fraudulently mislabeled as to their source.' The products can include incorrect ingredients, may misstate the amount of the active ingredients, or are manufactured under circumstances that lack quality control. Current estimates suggest that 10 percent of prescription drugs worldwide are counterfeit, contaminated, or fake. The problem is even direr in Africa, where some countries report that 30 to 50 percent of all prescription and over-the-counter medicines sold to consumers are counterfeits.
While the issue of counterfeit drugs has long been treated as a criminal matter of intellectual property infringement, this view has often obscured what is in fact a public health crisis. Counterfeit and substandard pharmaceuticals are not just duping consumers, they are taking lives. The WHO estimates that one fifth of global malaria deaths each year are a result of the use of fake drugs.
The roundtable discussion, which was hosted by the African Union, gave African health leaders the opportunity to share both their concerns and their innovative approaches to combating counterfeit drugs with representatives from the US government, the pharmaceutical industry, and others engaged in this important fight. The need for stronger responses to counterfeits was a recurring theme during a week-long visit of African health leaders from to the U.S.
The discussion's moderator Bright Simons called fake drugs 'the most systemic threat to healthcare in Africa'. Mr. Simons is the founder of mPedigree (www.mPedigree.Net), an innovative mobile phone-based system, which enables consumers through instant messaging to check the authenticity of their medications against a central database. This kind of consumer empowered identification capacity is increasingly important as drugs are being manufactured by increasingly sophisticated counterfeiters who are able to reproduce medications, packaging and even security holograms that are indistinguishable to the consumer from the authentic products.
At the country level, Nigeria has been a pioneer in Africa in fighting counterfeits. According to a 2006 study, Nigeria was able to cut the proportion of fake drugs in the Nigerian market, from 48% in 2004 to 16.7%, at least over the period under observation.
Mr. Linus Awute, Permanent Secretary of Nigeria's Ministry of Health, who spoke at the panel discussion, attributed this success to Nigeria's multi-faceted anti-counterfeit strategy which includes stronger regulation as well as better enforcement of existing laws. Most importantly though is the support that the entire Nigerian government has provided, in terms of resources and public diplomacy, to demonstrate the seriousness with which the country views this problem.
While there are many strategies and methods for addressing the issues of fake drugs in Africa, none of them can succeed without the collaboration, cooperation, and support of both African governments and African consumers.
The April 12th discussion left no doubt as to the interest and commitment of both groups for ending this deadly practice, now it is up to those in the private sector, U.S. government, and civil society to harness that commitment to create results.