The World Health Organization and more than 20 international partners is launching a global action plan to combat counterfeit medical products.  The World Health Organization says the plan includes a package of measures aimed at helping national authorities safeguard their populations from the dangers of counterfeit medicine. 

The World Health Organization says counterfeit drugs are a growing threat to the health and well being of people everywhere in the world.  But, it says the dangers are greatest in poor countries. 

The latest estimates show more than 30 percent of the medicine in areas of Latin America, South East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa is counterfeit.  In emerging economies, the World Health Organization puts that figure at 10 percent, but says it goes as high as 20 percent in many of the former Soviet Republics.

The World Health Organization warns 50 percent of illegal internet sales are counterfeit. 

WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Technology and Pharmaceuticals, Howard Zucker, cautions people to be very wary about buying drugs on the internet. He says people often are less careful about buying medicine from an unknown source than they are about buying a T-shirt.

"Now it would be one thing purchasing an article of clothing or even a piece of electronics on the internet," he said.  "The worst that happens is you feel like you unfortunately spent money for something which is not of good quality.  It is another thing buying medicine on the internet and finding out that you purchased medicine which is of poor quality, counterfeit, and worse yet potentially can harm you or even kill you." 

Dr. Zucker says counterfeit drugs proliferate because the profits are huge and the risks are low.  He says some studies estimate fake medicines bring in up to $80 billion a year, but penalties for getting caught are relatively modest.

He says WHO's five-point action plan is calling for the development of better technologies, which can prevent counterfeiting and can detect and track counterfeits on markets and on web sites.

He says the plan urges countries to enact much stronger legislation against those who make and sell fake drugs.  But, he says laws are only good if they are enforced.

"Even if you write the law and you bring someone in, how do you enforce this?  How do you enforce, prevent the trafficking of drugs across borders," Dr. Zucker said. "And, so we are working with Interpol, world customs organizations and others ...  And then the last two area-one is the issue of regulation.  We need to have drug regulations in countries that monitor what gets out into the public domain ... Drug regulations need to be improved in certain parts of the world, particularly in some of the developing world ... And, lastly the communication issue which is critical.  We need to get this message out to the world, both to the health workers and to everybody else." 

Dr. Zucker says three countries have started tackling the problem with the help of the World Health Organization and its partners.  He says Indonesia and Mali have begun wide communication campaigns to warn the public about fake medicines.  In Vietnam, he says police, customs and regulatory officials have begun to coordinate their efforts in cracking down on counterfeiters.