Written by Jon Barron at The Baseline of Health Foundation
Need meds? These days, you don't need to go any further than your computer. There are tons of websites catering to those who want to order their drugs -- everything from Accutane to combat acne to Zyrtec to control your allergies -- from the comfort of their own home. But are these medications the real thing?
In many cases, unfortunately, the answer is a resounding no. There has been a tremendous surge in the production of counterfeit drugs in the past decade. In 2009, there were close to 1,700 seizures of counterfeit medications around the world, which was triple the number that took place as recently as 2004. The World Health Organization estimates that more than half of the medication purchased through certain websites have been confirmed to be bogus. Studies taking place in Africa and Southeast Asia, where the counterfeit problem has been around the longest, have shown that approximately 15 to 30 percent of the drugs sold are phonies. By the United Nations' estimate, fully half of the anti-malarial medicines sold in Africa are counterfeit.
Of course, it's hard to tell just how bad the situation is in many nations because the regulations and enforcement vary so much from place to place. So although the numbers might look terrible in one country, it could be that their government is stringent and not a lot of the counterfeits are getting through to the public, whereas another country that reports almost no seizures may simply be too permissive and truly have a wide open market for these fakes.
Counterfeit drug smuggling has been treated with a slap on the wrist or less in most countries, which has also allowed the trade to thrive. But now that counterfeits have become so pervasive, the powerful pharmaceutical industry is fighting back. Most likely motivated more by lost profit than genuine concern for the welfare of the public, they have leaned their political muscle on the governments of numerous countries to create harsher penalties for distributing fake medicines and to become more aggressive in cracking down on those in the counterfeit trade.
If these counterfeit drugs were only harming the big pharmaceutical companies by eating away at a portion of their multibillion-dollar profits, it might be illegal but not so upsetting. However, since these fakes are not undergoing any sort of corporate or governmental safety process, they may not chemically resemble the products they are supposed to be. Some have been found not to possess the active ingredient of the medicine they are being passed off as and others have too much or too little of it. Then again, all of the component ingredients may be wrong or in the incorrect dosage. And there is also the possibility of contamination.
In other words, as questionable as the original pharmaceutical drug may be, these counterfeits are likely to be totally ineffective, or worse, may make you sick. And in the case of counterfeit antibiotics and antivirals, by not thoroughly treating the illness, they have also caused drug resistance to increase in certain germs. In the most extreme cases, people have even died after taking fake medications.
So why would anyone take the risk? Most people are unaware of how rampant counterfeit medications are so they don't realize they may not be receiving the real thing. And with weak economies persisting in many nations, the exorbitant price of drugs makes finding a bargain online more appealing.
Nowadays, it's getting harder and harder to tell the authentic goods from the fakes any more. As counterfeiters have gone from operating mostly in developing countries to setting up shop in better-regulated spots such as Great Britain and Canada, their technology has improved as well. Not only do the pills look exactly like the genuine article, but in some cases they are able to perfectly copy the holograms that appear on packaging to ensure authenticity.
To protect yourself -- whether you have purchased over-the-counter medicine or prescription drugs and whether it was bought online or at your neighborhood pharmacy -- always look it over before you first use it. If it is something you've taken before, make sure it appears the same. If the medication is new for you, check it out online by comparing pictures and descriptions. Examine the packaging carefully to spot any sign that it might have been tampered with. But again, as mentioned earlier, the better counterfeiters can perfectly replicate packaging and pill appearance, so a visual examination may not accomplish that much. Your safer option is to only order from the internet if you know the company you are ordering from. And if your country certifies online pharmacies, make sure you order only from certified sites. If the website is located in the United States, it will be licensed by the state board of pharmacy where the website is operating if it is legitimate. If you start taking a drug and it doesn't seem to be effective or you are experiencing unusual side effects, discontinue it immediately and bring it to a pharmacist or your physician for evaluation. They will let the FDA know so no one else can be harmed by this counterfeit.
And of course, an even better option is follow the Baseline of Health Program so you minimize the chances of ever needing pharmaceutical drugs in the first place.
Material originally published at www.jonbarron.org. Copyright © 1999-2011. Baseline of Health® Foundation Used by permission of the Baseline of Health® Foundation. All rights reserved worldwide.