UN health agency steps up war on multi-billion-dollar counterfeit medicine market

15 November 2006

The multi-billion-dollar market for counterfeit medicines was placed squarely in the cross-hairs of a new United Nations-backed initiative today to help national authorities crack down on the products, which can promote drug resistant strains of disease, worsen medical conditions and kill patients.

The UN World Health Organization (WHO) and more than 20 international partners inaugurated the International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce (IMPACT) in Bonn, Germany, with a programme covering legislation, law enforcement, regulation, technology and communication to fight the counterfeit drugs, which in some parts of the world account for more than 30 per cent of the total medicine market.

“The impact on people’s lives behind these figures is devastating,” WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Technology and Pharmaceuticals Howard Zucker said. “Whether rich or poor, many patients trustingly taking medicines may end up sicker or die. In addition, precious resources spent on these medicines go to waste.”

IMPACT warned against buying medicines from rogue web sites, where 50 per cent of drugs may be counterfeit, and cautioned governments that existing laws against medical counterfeiters are inadequate and do not act as deterrents.

Counterfeit medicines, which rake in tens of billions of dollars annually, range from products containing no active ingredients to those with highly toxic substances. The legal systems of most countries do not consider the problem a more serious crime than counterfeiting luxury items such as handbags or watches, WHO warned.

National laws are designed more to protect trademarks than people’s health and in some industrialized countries, counterfeiting T-shirts receives a harsher punishment than counterfeiting medicines.

IMPACT will present guiding principles for model legislation to help countries adapt their laws to the gravity of the crime. “A major objective is for countries to agree that counterfeiting is a crime against human security and incorporate that principle into their laws,” Dr. Zucker said.

Legislation, regulation and enforcement also provide the basis for dealing with the sale of counterfeit medicines on the Internet, which is already rife in industrialized countries and is growing in a number of emerging economies in Latin America and Asia, WHO noted.

Some Internet pharmacies are completely legal operations, requiring prescriptions and delivering medicine from government-licensed facilities, but others operate illegally without prescriptions and use unapproved or counterfeit products.

“This area needs more work,” WHO Coordinator of IMPACT Valerio Reggi said. “But the message for now is: do not take the risk of buying your medicines from unknown sources, such as the Internet. If you must buy from the Internet, ensure that the website is that of a pharmacy you know and trust.”

Latest estimates show that more than 30 per cent of medicines in some areas of Latin America, South East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are counterfeit. In emerging economies, the rate is put at 10 per cent but in many former Soviet republics it can be as high as 20 per cent.

In wealthy nations with strong regulatory mechanisms, counterfeits account for less than 1 per cent of the market value, but 50 per cent of illegal Internet sales are counterfeit.

Three countries with a high rate of counterfeits have already started tackling the problem with IMPACT’s support. Indonesia and Mali have begun campaigns to educate the public and dissuade people from buying on the black market. Viet Nam is setting up mechanisms to coordinate more effectively among regulatory, police, customs and provincial authorities to improve detection of counterfeit medicines and counterfeiters.

 

♦ Receive daily updates directly in your inbox - Subscribe here to a topic.
♦ Download the UN News app for your iOS or Android devices.