The World Health Organization (WHO) says the problem of counterfeit drugs is growing around the world and the number of people being disabled and killed by fraudulent medication is growing. The organization is calling for stronger international action to combat counterfeit medicines.
Judith Oulton is chief executive officer of the International Council of Nurses, an organization that represents 13 million nurses worldwide. She calls counterfeit medicine a modern-day scourge.
She says they are a tremendous and growing threat to patients. They are especially dangerous in developing countries where, she says up to 25 percent of medication used is either counterfeit or sub-standard.
"They are not only unsafe and ineffective in terms of treating or preventing the intended disease, but we are wasting tremendous resources in terms of purchasing, in terms of inventory, in terms of transporting, in terms of dispensing," she said. "And the worst part is that the results are horrendous sometimes when you look at the impact it has. The outcome is like poisoning, like disability, and like death."
Investigators say the most obvious counterfeiting method is to put a false label on a medicine with the deliberate intent to deceive the patient or doctor.
There are other cases where drugs are stolen and re-labeled, where low cost vaccines are resold into higher priced markets or where the date of a genuine medicine has expired and been resold with a new expiration date.
Harvey Bale is director general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association. He says many governments give a higher priority to counterfeit films and CD's than they do to counterfeit medicines.
"The risk of prosecution and penalties levied for counterfeiting is at inadequate levels," he said. "And there are low risks to counterfeiters of medicines and high returns. So, we actually see in some cases criminal elements moving from illegal drugs into legal drugs and counterfeiting those legal drugs and selling those because it is less risky and a higher return is available."
No one knows how much is made from this illegal trade, but experts figure it runs into billions of dollars every year.
Bale says, the risks are low. In Indonesia, for example, the maximum fine for drug counterfeiters is 40 dollars and six months in prison.
The World Health Organization is leading a new consortium of health and law enforcement agencies organized to tackle the counterfeit drug trade. Called IMPACT it aims to get governments to enact and enforce tough laws against the illegal manufacture and trade in false medications.