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WHO Battles Counterfeit Drugs in Asia - 2003-11-12

The World Health Organization is launching a program to combat sales of substandard and counterfeit medicine in six Southeast Asia countries. The agency says the plan follows similar initiatives to improve the quality of medicine in Africa.

The new program targets Cambodia, China, Laos, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam, where the World Health Organization says counterfeit and substandard drugs are frequently found. The suspect medicines include antibiotics and drugs to treat tuberculosis, malaria and HIV-AIDS.

As an example of the growing worldwide problem, a WHO drugs official, Clive Ondari, says many of the one million deaths annually from malaria are a result of counterfeit or substandard medicines.

"If we ensured that anti-malarials were of good quality, they worked as they were supposed to work and were safe, it would save a minimum of 200,000 lives every year," he said. "So, we are losing in the order of about 200,000 lives annually due to medicines that are not working as they are supposed to work."

A recent WHO survey of the quality of anti-malarial drugs in seven African countries shows that between 20 percent and 90 percent of the products were of poor quality.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates counterfeits make up more than 10 percent of the global medicine market and are present in both industrialized and developing countries. It figures sales of these products net more than $32 billion annually.

The World Health Organization says the most frequently counterfeited drugs in wealthier countries are new, expensive lifestyle medicines; such as hormones, steroids, and antihistamines. In developing countries, the most counterfeited drugs are those used to treat life-threatening conditions such as malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV-AIDS.

WHO Project Officer, Andre Van Zyl says counterfeit drugs find a ready market in poor countries because people there do not have access to the original products or cannot afford them, so they go for a cheaper alternative.

"So, it is easy to market the product," he said. "And, because in many of these countries there is also weak legislation, there is insufficient control over products and they can be sold in different outlets, not necessarily restricted to pharmacies or surgeries and so on. So, you can find them on the street or the marketplace in many of these countries. So, it is easy to market them because the patient does not know the difference between a real product and a counterfeit."

As part of its plan to tackle the problem, WHO is running training workshops in several African and Asian countries. It is assisting manufacturers to upgrade their standards and teaching regulatory authorities how to improve their quality control to ensure the safety of products.