Global health authorities are making only fitful progress toward eliminating fake or substandard drugs that cause widespread suffering and death in the developing world. Delegates from 76 member countries of the World Health Organization met this week in Buenos Aires to lay the groundwork for more forceful action.
No one knows precisely how much fraudulent or substandard medicine is sold around the world, but the fragmentary data are alarming. In poor countries, half of the medicines used to treat some deadly diseases have been found to be fakes that had little or no active ingredient; worse yet, some contained toxic substances.
One estimate by experts is that at least 100,000 people die every year from substandard and fake medicines for cancer, heart disease, infectious diseases and other ailments. Fake malaria drugs pose a real risk of hampering the international effort to curb the disease. In wealthy nations, substandard or fraudulent drugs have caused thousands of adverse reactions and some deaths.
The United States, despite having a strong regulatory agency, is hardly immune to this problem. In recent years, fake doses of Avastin sold to physician groups for cancer treatment lacked the active ingredient; a weight-loss medicine contained undeclared ingredients that posed a health risk; and compounding pharmacies have produced contaminated drugs that caused meningitis and deaths.
An analysis by health experts published in the British Medical Journal last week lamented the lack of progress in addressing this scourge. The group called for a global treaty backed by governments, drug companies and nongovernmental groups to ensure a safe drug supply.
Crackdowns by international police and national regulatory agencies have made progress in shutting down dangerous online pharmacies. But, in poor countries, the greater problem is keeping bad products out of the supply chain that serves pharmacies and health care provider groups. In Kenya, even Doctors Without Borders, a smart operation, was duped into buying fake antiretroviral drugs to combat AIDS, which it gave to thousands of patients before the fraud was discovered.
There is an urgent need for a more vigorous international effort. That might include stronger surveillance and research to determine the extent of the problem, clearer definitions for bad drugs (substandard, counterfeit, falsely labeled, falsified or fraudulent drugs, for example) and new international laws to make it a crime to traffic in such medicines.