Over the weekend, we saw coverage of a massive drug bust in East Africa in which more than 20,000 pounds of counterfeit medicine were seized from more than 300 sites across Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zanzibar. According to Interpol authorities, the confiscated items included anti-malaria drugs, vaccines and antibiotics.
Counterfeit medicine — defined by the WHO as any generic or brand-name product that is “deliberately and fraudulently mislabeled with respect to identity and/or source” — is a growing problem across the developing world.
For people reliant on medicines such as antiretrovirals (ARVs), anti-malarials and vaccines, counterfeiting is not just an issue of brand names and packaging — it can be a matter of life or death. Oftentimes, counterfeit drugs lack critical ingredients that make legitimate drugs function properly and effectively ward off infection.
Individuals who take such counterfeit drugs risk suffering from abnormal side effects or even prolonged illness and death. There is also a greater likelihood of fostering drug resistance, which reduces the effectiveness of legitimate drugs over time; gradually eliminates tools that are currently working well in global health; and forces new products to be developed — an important but highly expensive process.
There are many initiatives underway to both help stem the manufacture and trade of counterfeit drugs and also to flush ineffective medicines out of the markets in which they are most needed. As two diverse examples, the WHO created a task force in 2006 devoted to the fight against counterfeits; and the Center for Global Development has its own initiative focused on promoting policy solutions to combat drug resistance.
Health mechanisms have begun to come up with their own innovative programs, as well. The Global Fund — whose operations are reliant upon effective, modern medicines — acknowledge that in many markets, counterfeit or out-of-date drugs for malaria (such as chloroquine) can also be far cheaper than effective drugs, making their purchase more appealing for suppliers or consumers in need of the medicine.
To encourage the purchase of artemesinin-based combination therapy (ACTs) to treat malaria, the Global Fund established the Affordable Medicines for Malaria Facility (AMFm). Through the AMFm, the Global Fund has negotiated lower ACT prices with manufacturers and will pay a large proportion of this directly to manufacturers on behalf of buyers across the public, private for-profit and not-for-profit sectors.
Countries participating in AMFm must also implement “supporting interventions” to ensure the increased availability and safe use of ACTs, including public awareness campaigns, training and supportive supervision for ACT providers, and policy and regulatory measures. For patients who currently pay for treatment, this is expected to result in a significant ACT price reduction, from about $6-10 per treatment to about $0.20-0.50.
To support the Global Fund in this critical replenishment year, sign our petition today. And as always, stay tuned for the latest on efforts across the developing world to fight corruption and improve global health.