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Fighting fake medicines is everybody’s business

10:05 PM December 02, 2013

When we are ill and we take some medicine, each of us probably has the same mixed feelings of relief and hope that it will make us feel better. Most of us usually get our medicines from somewhere reliable, someone we trust: a pharmacy, a doctor or a nurse. No matter where we get it, the hope is always the same—that it will work and improve our condition. We rarely think that it might not actually work because the pill is fake.

And yet, fake medicines—whether sold directly over the Internet or infiltrating the local pharmacy, hospital or store—represent a threat, putting both patients and the general public at risk. Fake medicines are a global problem: They are reported in virtually every region of the world.

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One percent of medicines in the developed world are likely to be fake. This figure rises to 10 percent globally, but in some areas of Asia, Africa and Latin America, fake medicines may account for up to 30 percent of medicines in circulation. Asia, for instance, accounts for the biggest share of trade in counterfeit medicines. It is also estimated that one medicine in two purchased on Internet sites that hide their physical address is fake.

Fake medicines are first and foremost a crime against patients. People believe they are taking genuine medicines but instead are at risk of further illness, disability, or even death. However, these harmful products also have wider implications: Beyond personal tragedies, they put the health of whole communities in danger by exposing them to greater drug resistance, which means standard treatments become ineffective. Just

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last month, international experts said that “drug-resistant malaria in several Southeast Asian countries endangers major global gains in fighting the mosquito-borne disease that kills more than 600,000 people annually.”

It also undermines the functioning of the healthcare systems. As CEO of the International Council of Nurses, I know how important the trust of patients is to nurses who want to do their best and see their patients recover quickly. If they receive a fake medicine, they may lose faith and confidence in healthcare professionals who try to help them.

A wide range of pharmaceutical products can be and have been counterfeited: lifesaving medicines for malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, cancer, heart diseases as well as “lifestyle” medicines, for erectile dysfunction and weight loss. The leading fake medicines in the Philippines, for instance, are those for the treatment of hypertension, asthma, and diarrhea, and also painkillers and vitamins.

My goal is not to scare you. My goal is to make us all vigilant. The first step is increased public awareness about fake medicines and their serious effects. By “public” I mean all of us—you, me, healthcare professionals, regulators, governments and anybody else interested and affected—acting in coordinated ways, as we’re doing through the Fight the Fakes campaign which brings together individuals and organizations around the world and at all levels of society to help make people aware.

I believe that if we are all aware of the existence of fake medicines and the dangers they pose, we will be better at putting pressure on our governments, and all those involved in the manufacturing and distribution of medicines, to coordinate actions to tackle this public health threat on a global level.

David Benton is the CEO of the International Council of Nurses, which has just colaunched the Fight the Fakes campaign with: The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and

Associations; International Institute of Research Against Counterfeit Medicines; Medicines for Malaria Venture; NCD Alliance; The Fondation Chirac; World Heart Federation; World Medical Association); and US Pharmacopeial Convention.

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