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UN health agency launches attack on multi-billion-dollar counterfeit medicine market

UN health agency launches attack on multi-billion-dollar counterfeit medicine market

The United Nations health agency and its partners will this month officially launch the first ever international taskforce to combat counterfeit medical products, a market that brings in tens of billions of dollars annually as it promotes drug resistant strains of disease, can worsen medical conditions and may kill its patients.

“They are present on all markets and are increasing as counterfeiters’ methods become more sophisticated, infiltrating official channels of distribution as well as using illegal web sites to sell their wares,” the UN World Health Organization (WHO) said today in announcing the first meeting in Bonn, Germany, on 15-16 November of the International Medical Products Anti-counterfeiting Taskforce (IMPACT).

Unveiling a global plan of action, IMPACT will release the most recent estimates of counterfeit products on the world’s markets, launch pilot programmes in three countries, and present a tool to strengthen countries’ legislative capacity to tackle counterfeiting.

The UN partners in the initiative range from international policing bodies like Interpol and the World Customs Organization, to regional groups such as the European Commission and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), to the pharmaceutical industry. Besides the WHO other UN bodies include the World Bank, World Trade Organization and World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

Although precise figures are elusive, estimates put counterfeits at more than 10 per cent of the global medicines market. They are present in all regions but developing countries bear the brunt of the problem with an estimated 25 per cent of medicines believed to be counterfeit. In some countries, the figure is thought to be as high as 50 per cent.

The Centre for Medicines in the Public Interest in the United States predicts that counterfeit drug sales will reach $75 billion globally in 2010, an increase of more than 90 per cent from 2005, WHO noted.

Trade in these products is more prevalent in countries with weak drug regulation control and enforcement, scarcity and/or erratic supply of basic medicines, unregulated markets and unaffordable prices. However, as counterfeiting methods become more sophisticated, counterfeits are increasingly present in better-controlled markets.

Until recently, the most frequently counterfeited medicines in wealthy countries were new, expensive lifestyle medicines, such as hormones, steroids and antihistamines. In developing countries the most counterfeited medicines have been those used to treat life-threatening conditions such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, WHO said.

During a meningitis epidemic in Niger in 1995, more than 50,000 people were inoculated with fake vaccines donated by a country which thought they were safe. The error killed 2,500 people. Paracetamol cough syrup prepared with diethylene glycol, a toxic chemical used in antifreeze, killed 89 people in Haiti in 1995 and 30 infants in India in 1998.

A study in South-East Asia in 2001 revealed that 38 per cent of 104 antimalarial drugs on sale in pharmacies did not contain any active ingredients. In 1999, at least 30 people died in Cambodia after taking counterfeit antimalarials.

IMPACT is focused on five action areas embracing the different national and international sectors: legislative and regulatory infrastructure, regulatory implementation, enforcement, technology, and risk communication.

“Without changes and improvements in those key areas, we will not succeed in the fight against counterfeits,” WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Technology and Pharmaceuticals Howard Zucker said.

“Counterfeit medicines must be tackled not only through global efforts but also by a truly collaborative, cross-cutting approach involving medicine regulatory authorities, health professionals, enforcement officials, law-makers and industry.”