Counterfeit medicines: a billion dollar business targetting the poor

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From Cameroon to Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya to the DR Congo, traders in counterfeit drugs do a thriving business with the utmost cynicism and sometimes at the cost of human lives.


“Street medication kills. The street is killing (safe) medication,” declares a banner outside a pharmacy in the Cameroonian capital Yaounde, where the dangerous trade is rampant.

The market is saturated with counterfeit anti-malaria drugs, painkillers, antibiotics and even rehydration serum. No domain of the pharmaceutical industry is spared by illicit manufacturers and traffickers, according to reports gathered by AFP offices across Africa.

“That’s powerful Diclofenac (an anti-inflammatory), which is the bestseller,” says Blaise Djomo, a street vendor at Yaounde’s central market. “And this is Viagra, which Cameroonians are really wild about.”

About 100 traders like Djomo are set up under parasols in full view of everyone, their boxes heaped with medicines. Bubble-pack strips of pills are lined up in the wooden stalls.

People can even buy single pills at this market or even at some grocery stores. Vendors often mix fake medication with the real thing, which has either been legally acquired or stolen from supplies meant for hospitals and clinics.

At best, fake prescription drugs have no effect, acting like placebos, but at their worst, they are highly toxic. Either way they bring in vast sums of money for those behind the illicit traffic. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) warned at a conference in February 2013 that counterfeit drugs are a multi-billion dollar business accounting for 30% of the pharmaceutical market in parts of Africa.

“Fraudulent medicines have proven to be harmful and at times fatal, as well as an increasingly lucrative area for organised criminal networks,” the agency said in a press release.

“The supply routes are of two kinds. Alongside the small-scale smugglers, there are international criminal networks that undertake the supply of drugs from distant manufacturers in China and India,” said Parfait Kouassi, who chaired the National Order of Pharmacists in Côte d’Ivoire from 2005 to 2012.

The phenomenon is spreading and represents between 20 and 25% of the drug market in Côte d’Ivoire, adds Kouassi. In Kenya, 30% of drugs sold in 2012 were either fake or counterfeit, according to the Pharmacy and Poisons Board of Kenya. Cameroon health officials give a similar figure.

However, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as in many other African countries, there are no national statistics, just records of frequent drugs seizures.

In Nigeria — once known as a major source of counterfeit medicines — phony drugs and real ones that had passed their expiry date made up 70% of sales in 2002, according to the World Health Organisation.

Since then, in the continent’s biggest market with some 160m people, officials say that high-profile efforts have greatly reduced the number of fake or adulterated drugs, but reliable figures are hard to obtain.

“Most of these fake and adulterated drugs come from China and India, from where we import more than 50% of the drugs we use in Nigeria.” says Abubakar Jimoh, spokesman of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC).

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