We’ve been hearing about Asia’s desire for African ivory, and how it is decimating the African population of elephants and rhinoceros, whose body parts are in high demand in parts of Asia for use in traditional medicine. In the case of rhinos, the number of these animals killed for their horns (worth some $600,000) has risen from about 20 a year to an expected 600 this year.
This lethal trade in animal parts, shipped from the African continent to several Asian countries, and most notably China, is now being matched by an even more deadly trade, moving in the opposite direction: Asian counterfeiters are sending fake drugs to several African countries. Many of the pills have few or no active ingredients at all.
From the Pulitzer Center writing about Tanzania:
The life-saving medicine arrives on cargo trucks and in suitcases, crossing borders to be put on sale in pharmacies, shops and hospitals. There is just one problem: it isn’t life-saving at all.
To look at the packaging, you would never know. It is usually a dead ringer for the real thing. Only on closer inspection will you find a watermark missing or notice the crumbling edges of a tablet that to well-trained inspectors can be the telltale signs of fakery. Even health professionals are routinely fooled.
According to The Guardian, the influx of these fake drugs from Asia, and especially China, is leading to a health crisis in some African countries, with the treatment of malaria being particularly at risk.
It’s hard to estimate exactly how widespread it is, but a recent study by the Fogarty Institute found that around a third of malaria drugs available in Uganda and Tanzania were falsified, susbstandard or degraded. Most of these were believed to originate in China, with a smaller number coming from India.
Specifically, here’s what the Fogarty researchers found:
Multicountry surveys from seven Southeast Asian countries included data on 1,437 samples of malaria drugs. About one third failed chemical analysis, nearly half were not correctly packaged and 36 percent were fakes. Similar surveys from 21 countries in sub-Saharan Africa provided data on 2,634 malaria drug samples. Of these, more than one third failed on the basis of chemical analysis and about 20 percent were found to be fakes. Only Burkina Faso provided data on packaging analysis, with about a 35 percent failure rate.
Sadly, most of the world’s 655,000 to 1.2 million deaths from malaria each year are preventable, but only if patients receive authentic drugs in appropriate dosages and get them early enough.
As reported in The Guardian, Laurie Garett, senior fellow for global health at the US Council on Foreign Relations, said:
“Nobody has a head count – or a body count – on numbers of Africans that have died as a result. But China’s role certainly has been dreadful.”
It’s not just about people dying; there are also serious concerns about drug resistance building in east Africa.
Imagine being a mother, possibly traveling miles to bring your child sick with malaria to get a life-saving vaccination, only to be presented with a counterfeit, useless medicine.
It’s hard to imagine a more egregious situation.
There’s also the damage to the reputation of global aid organizations, which every year spend millions on various medicines to help people in poorer countries.
The World Health Organization does have anti-counterfeiting and medicines quality assurance programs, but they need the backing of tight collaborations between governments and a very strong regulatory authority. As yet, none of those components are in place, which means that unscrupulous counterfeiters, apparently not concerned that they are harming sick people, continue making huge profits.
And African countries lose out yet again.
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Photo Credit: Gates Foundation