News / Africa

Drug Firms Fight Spread of Counterfeit Drugs in East Africa

Michael Onyiego

The world's largest pharmaceutical companies have gathered in Nairobi to develop a strategy to fight counterfeit medicines in East Africa.

A two-day conference opened Wednesday to discuss the dangers of counterfeit medicine, as well as ways to limit the spread of the drugs in East Africa and around the world.

Health officials, police, customs officers and pharmaceutical industry representatives plan to assess the systems in place to prevent the distribution of fake medicine, along with measures needed to tighten pharmaceutical security. Representatives from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Madagascar are in attendance.

One of the representatives from Kenya’s Pharmacy and Poisons Board, Jayesh Pandit, spoke of the dangers that counterfeit medicine posed to the region.

“Counterfeits kill," said Pandit. "They do not kill the guy outside this hotel. They do not kill the guy in our village. They kill people here, now, within us.”

Counterfeit drugs are different from generic drugs, which are identical in formula to brand name drugs, but marketed separately and often at lower prices. Though many organizations use different definitions, counterfeit drugs are generally considered to be drugs made to look like those manufactured by regulated companies, but which often contain incorrect dosages or even incorrect ingredients.

Many of the counterfeits are produced in countries such as China and India but, according to the Pharmaceutical Security Institute, counterfeit factories also have been found in such countries as Egypt and Colombia.

In Africa, where drugs are crucial to the fight against diseases like malaria and AIDS, the threat of counterfeiting is very real. According to a 2009 study by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, 50 percent to 60 percent of anti-infection drugs tested in Asia and Africa contained incorrect dosages.  

Besides the risk of overdose, the report found that drugs containing low doses of medication - particularly anti-malarial medication - could help promote drug resistance in deadly diseases.

There also is a fear that harmful counterfeit medicine could push rural communities in Africa to re-adopt traditional medicines to address their needs.

The conference - sponsored by American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer - will spend the next day discussing ways to prevent counterfeit medicines from being manufactured and sold. Pfizer East Africa director Willy Soriney stressed that increasing access to crucial medicines by reducing their prices is a key part of the strategy.

“Counterfeiters rarely counterfeit medicines that have no attractive return value on the market," said Soriney. "They always pick a good brand that is highly demanded for and they counterfeit that.”

Soriney said that embracing the generic manufacture of medicines - something previously opposed by large pharmaceutical companies - also is important in reducing the demand for counterfeit drugs.

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