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Fake drugs flood Africa as nations squabble over laws

Special to the Trice Edney News Wire from GIN

Counterfeit medicines pose a serious threat to public health. Perhaps 15 percent of the global drug supply is counterfeit, rising in parts of Africa and Asia to over 50 percent.

But efforts at making counterfeiting a crime and pursuing perpetrators across national borders have been stymied by foot-dragging among western nations and drug companies, among others. Recommendations made at a Conference of Experts on the Rational Use of Drugs in Nairobi in 1985 have still not given a green light to the World Health Organization to regulate fake drugs, as is done with tobacco and currency counterfeiting.

“The drug industry could contribute much more to the fight against fake drugs,” wrote The Lancet medical magazine in an article titled “Fighting fake drugs.” Drug companies currently maintain vital information about counterfeiting, the categories of drugs being falsified and the locations where fake drugs are being marketed. But their database is confidential. “Evidence of a dangerous epidemic is thus being hidden by industry and this situation must change.”

Fake drugs with no malaria-fighting agents can lead to deaths, and those with some active ingredients — but not enough to fully kill all parasites — are also problematic because they promote resistance that can eventually outsmart medicines and render them useless.

Resistance is building in Asia to artemisinin-based drugs, the only effective medicine against malaria, which could eventually spread to Africa and endanger many people. Currently, malaria kills an estimated 2,000 children every day in Africa. Some 3.3 billion people worldwide are at risk of getting infected.

“We feel a sense of emergency considering the impact these medicines can have,” said Gaurvika Nayyar, of the Fogarty International Center at the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

More labs are needed worldwide to test for fake drugs — only three out of 47 malaria-plagued countries in Africa are equipped to do so.

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