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Curbing skyrocketing sales in counterfeit drugs

UN health agency aims to curb skyrocketing sales in counterfeit drugs

Extremely lucrative and ever more attractive to criminal networks, global sales of counterfeit medicines are expected to soar to $75 billion by the end of the decade, the World Health Organization (WHO) said today.

The United Nations health agency will be demanding immediate action to curb the growing epidemic of illicit medicines as pharmaceutical companies, regulators, consumer groups and others gather tomorrow at a three-day meeting in Rome.

“People don’t die from carrying a fake handbag or wearing a fake T-shirt. They can die from taking a counterfeit medicine,” said Howard Zucker, Assistant Director General for Health Technology and Pharmaceuticals at WHO. “International police action against the factories and distribution networks should be as uncompromising as that applied to the pursuit of narcotic smuggling.”

Part of the broader phenomenon of substandard pharmaceuticals, counterfeit medicines are different in that the identity or source of the drugs are deliberately and fraudulently mislabelled. WHO says these medicines are particularly dangerous because not only do they rarely carry any therapeutic benefit, but they can dupe sick people into believing they are taking something to improve their health. Instead, the ingestion of these drugs could make them sicker or even kill them.

Every country is involved in counterfeit medicines, which is estimated to make up 10 per cent of the global medicines trade. According to a report released by the US-based Centre for Medicines in the Public Interest, counterfeit drug sales will skyrocket to $75 billion in 2010, a 92 per cent jump from 2005.

WHO officials want to create a global task force that will focus on legislation, law enforcement activities, trade, risk communications and innovative technology solutions that can curb the sales of these drugs. The solutions would include public-private initiatives that tap into new technologies that can detect counterfeits.

“Countries should think about ways to make the necessary technological, legislative and financial adjustments as quickly as possible to guarantee the availability of quality assured essential drugs,” Mr. Zucker said.

Last year, WHO set up the world's first web-based system for tracking the activities of illicit drug traders in the Western Pacific Region. The Rapid Alert System (RAS) communications network relays reports on the distribution of counterfeit medicines to the appropriate authorities so they can respond right away. That system should be expanded to include all regions, WHO said.

Information on fake drug identity and distribution needs to be shared at a national and international level among drug regulatory authorities, customs and police organizations, pharmaceutical companies, non-governmental organizations and consumer groups.

This week’s conference in Rome is being hosted by the Italian Pharmaceutical Agency (AIFA) and Italian Cooperation, and organized with the support of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA) and the German Government.

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