The dangers of counterfeit medical products
Counterfeit products are harmful and can even be fatal.
Fake medicines range from useless to highly dangerous. They often contain the wrong level of active ingredient – too little, too much or none at all – or an active ingredient intended for a different purpose. In some cases, fake medicines have been found to contain highly toxic substances such as rat poison. In all these scenarios, the person taking the counterfeit medicine is putting their health, even their life, at risk.
One can easily be deceived by counterfeit medicines: they are often packaged to a high standard with fake pills that look identical to the genuine ones. Sometimes a laboratory test is the only way to identify the difference.
The extent of the problem
Counterfeit medicine is now a truly global phenomenon, and all countries of the world are affected as source, transit or destination points.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that up to 1 per cent of medicines available in the developed world are likely to be counterfeit. This figure rises to 10 per cent globally, but in some areas of Asia, Africa and Latin America counterfeit goods can form up to 30 per cent of the market.
Counterfeiting applies not only to 'lifestyle' medicines, including erectile dysfunction and weight loss medicines, but also to 'lifesaving medicines' including those used to treat cancer, heart disease and other serious illnesses.
And it's not just medicines. Fake medical devices also pose a risk. The term 'medical device' covers a wide range of healthcare products from contact lenses to condoms; syringes to surgical instruments; and wheelchairs to radiotherapy machines.
Risks of buying medicines over the Internet
More and more people are buying medicines and medical devices over the Internet, through online pharmacies and auction sites. Unfortunately, a large number of these Internet sites are unauthorized, unregulated and trade in illicit or sub-standard products.
If an online supplier conceals its physical address, this is a warning sign that their products could be dangerous. The WHO estimates that 50 per cent of medicines available from such websites are counterfeit.
In particular, buying prescription-only medicines from unauthorized or dubious sources significantly increases the risk of getting sub-standard or fake products. It is important to consult a healthcare professional for prescription-only medicines and to obtain the medicines from a regulated source.
Buying medicines online may seem cheaper, quicker and more convenient than going through your doctor and high street pharmacy, but the dangers outweigh the benefits by far. Don't take the risk.
Links of interest
- Buying Medicines Over the Internet, US Food and Drug Administration
- Buying drugs over the Internet, Health Canada
- Advice and information for consumers, Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) of the UK.
- Dangers of buying health products over the Internet, Health Sciences Authority, Singapore.
- Internetpillen (in Dutch only)
Operation Pangea V poster
October 2012: A global operation involving 100 countries targeted the organized crime networks behind the illicit online sale of medicines. More than 18,000 websites were shut down.
Awareness campaign 2010
The videos below highlight the risks of buying medicines online.
Susan's story - fake sleeping medication
Cheryl's story - fake weight loss pills
Chad's story - fake blood pressure pills
John's story - fake erectile dysfunction drugs
Pharmaceutical crime | PDF 1 MB