Opinion - Let us eradicate the scourge of fake medicines

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Opinion - Let us eradicate the scourge of fake medicines

"Let us eradicate the scourge of fake medicines" 

 Opinion by JEAN-YVES OLLIVIER, CHairman of the Brazzaville Foundation in LE JOURNAL DU DIMANCHE 


Each year substandard and falsified medicines kill 800,000 people around the world. Africa is one of the regions most affected.  According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 30-60% of essential medicines in circulation in Africa (eg anti-malarial, anti-tuberculosis) are falsified or substandard. Often these fake tablets and syrups contain no active ingredients or in quantities which are insufficient. Worse, they can even contain toxic substances like paint, anti-freeze or arsenic.


Can we continue to accept that the health of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children is being sacrificed to enrich criminal networks? Because this business is doing very well: with an estimated worth of some 200 billion dollars a year, it constitutes the second largest source of criminal revenue ahead of drug trafficking.


Despite its profitability, little is being done to suppress it. In the absence of legislation specifically targeting falsified medicines, coordinated enforcement, and effective international cooperation, the perpetrators are usually pursued under anti-counterfeiting laws where the penalties are often minimal: between 15 days and a few months imprisonment.  Such impunity is unacceptable in view of the threat to health and wider security.


No country can deal with this threat on its own. Let us recognise the courage and determination of African states like Rwanda, Togo and Guinea who, often with limited means, have put in place public health policies and mounted operations to dismantle the networks supplying falsified medicines.   This is a threat which concerns China, India or Europe just as much as it does Africa. Only a few weeks ago, the President of the Republic of the Congo, Denis Sassou N’guesso, addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations to underline this message: the fight against falsified medicine must become a major international priority.


The Brazzaville Foundation, which works for peace and the protection of the environment in Africa, is determined to ensure that access to decent medicines is a fundamental right for all. Working with other concerned organisations and actors, we want to draw up a road map covering three priority areas. The first is new, internationally agreed legislation to tackle the purveyors of fake medicines and ensure that the penalties are proportionate to the seriousness of the crime. 


The second is better traceability of medicines and the dismantlement of the manufacturing and distribution networks. This requires the involvement of international actors like the WHO, Interpol, the World Customs Organisation as well as the pharmaceutical industry. In 2013, 29 pharmaceutical companies joined Interpol and the WHO to dismantle networks involved in trafficking falsified medicines. This led to operations to seize falsified medicines around the world. Last September 25 million falsified medicines were thus intercepted in 123 countries.


Finally, because information and education have a crucial role in the fight against falsified medicines, it is essential to run, with international support, popular awareness campaigns to teach people how to detect these fake products and inform them of the risks of non-official distributors. An alliance with the pharmaceutical industry is indispensable to ensure that the poorest are not the most vulnerable.


Delay can only reinforce this criminal industry. In the face of this scourge, international organisations and institutions have the means to achieve lasting solutions and make the right to health a reality for all.


Jean-Yves Ollivier