Pharmaceutical products (medicine) form an important and vital part of any country’s healthcare system. Yet the presence of counterfeit pharmaceuticals has become a global dilemma which poses serious threat to an effective health care system and in some cases, citizen’s constitutional rights to health care. These counterfeit pharmaceuticals are not isolated to so called “poor countries” as it can also effect developing countries, such as South Africa, due to, inter alia illiteracy and improved quality of some of the counterfeit pharmaceutical products.

So what exactly is counterfeit medicine? Counterfeit medicines are medicines which have been deliberately and fraudulently produced, or mislabelled, so that it appears to consumers to be a genuine product. The worrying factor is that these counterfeit medicines may contain no active ingredient, the wrong active ingredient or the wrong amount of the correct active ingredient.

A consequence of counterfeit pharmaceuticals which contain lower than required levels of active ingredients is the development of drug resistant strains of the diseases which the original pharmaceuticals product is meant to combat. It has been proven that some of the counterfeit medicine commonly contains floor polish, corn starch, dust, potato starch, chalk, acid, heavy metals or arsenic.  Against this background, it is not surprising that most countries in Africa are becoming vigilant in their effort to prevent importation or manufacturing of counterfeit medicine.

The difficulty for law enforcement agency to combat counterfeit medicines is because the products are generally being distributed through, illegal online websites and untrustworthy pharmacies whose owners only care about profits and not the wellbeing of their patients. Anti-malaria and antibiotics are some of the most commonly reported counterfeit medicines manufactured and distributed in the World. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) 10 to 15% of the global drug supply is counterfeit and Africa accounts for up to 30% of the counterfeit medicine in circulation. A more worrying statistic is that it is estimated that 1 in 10 drugs sold worldwide is counterfeit.

The difficulty with counterfeit medicines is that by their very nature they are difficult to detect. As technology has developed so did the counterfeiter’s capability of manufacturing and designing products which visually appear identical to the genuine product, however, they still fail to properly treat the disease or condition for which they were intended.  Counterfeiters are no longer targeting lifestyle products, such as impotence like Viagra or weight loss products like Phedra Cut, but also prescription medicines for treating chronic and serious diseases like Avastin for cancer

So how would one go about identifying counterfeit medicine?

  • Firstly, examine whether the packaging contain spelling mistakes or grammatical errors. As most counterfeit medicines are often manufactured in countries where the first language is not English, the manufacturers tend to make spelling mistakes or grammatical errors on the outer packaging or instructions leaflet;
  • Also look at the quality/condition of the packaging;
  • Examine the manufacturing and expiry dates on the outer packaging and cross reference these details with the details shown on the inner packaging; and
  • Examine the medicine whether it looks correct, has any discolouration or an odorous smell. If any of these features appear, rather consult your healthcare practitioner to confirm whether the medication is authentic.

Notwithstanding all the above identification feature, always remember the cardinal rule of thumb when buying medicine - if the price of a medicine seems too good to be true, it probably is.                                         

Apart from the above counterfeiting has been linked to various forms of organised crime, including drugs trafficking, weapons trafficking, human trafficking and money-laundering, just to name a few. Because of the lucrative value of counterfeiting, it has become more attractive to criminals particularly considering that the criminal penalties for pharmaceutical counterfeiting are often less severe relative to trafficking of narcotics. Therefore, any counterfeit product which a consumer might purchase are in actual fact supporting/funding organise crime.

With the aforesaid in mind, what is the safest way to buy medicine? The safest way to purchase medicine would be to purchase prescription medicine from a reputable pharmacy, with which you are familiar. Furthermore, make sure that you do not purchase medication from an online pharmacy which is not licensed in South Africa, that offers to write prescriptions, or that sells medication without prescription.