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Fighting the fakes

Visible and accountable action by pharma is needed to minimise the risk of counterfeits

cuffsEvery now and then we see national newspaper headlines about the counterfeit production of high profile drugs such as Viagra and Lipitor. For a few days there's a flurry of debate in pharmacies and boardrooms, then it all goes quiet again.

Although it is a hot topic within pharma, the subject hasn't touched the public consciousness in the way that some other health issues have, such as healthcare budget deficits and superbugs.

Sales of counterfeit drugs worldwide are expected to reach £38bn by 2010 - a 92 per cent increase from 2005. The World Health Organisation estimates that up to 10 per cent of all medicines are counterfeit. So far, most counterfeit drugs have been found in countries where the trade is unregulated or being direct to the public via the internet. However, there has also been an increase in the number of fake medicines that have found there way into the regulated supply chain.

In 2005, 560,000 counterfeit medicines were seized at the EU's borders - a 100 per cent increase on the previous year. As if that's not worrying enough, it appears that there has been a three-fold increase for 2006, with the figure estimated at more than 1.5 million. These scary-sounding numbers represent only one per cent of drugs available, but although the number of people affected may be relatively small, the potential effects on these patients are significant.

There are several factors that contribute to this issue. There is the question of trust between various organisational layers within pharma and the question of branding and its protection. Far more significant and more difficult to tackle are the major problems of organised crime and international security. The production and sale of counterfeit drugs is very lucrative.

It is time to look at this issue, not just from the point of view of the damage this is doing to revenue within pharma, but also at how this is impacting on the public perception of the industry. There is going to come a time when the public will demand some action from the industry to tackle this problem.

Pills with the same mode of action may now come in various shapes and sizes, with different packaging and labelling. People are beginning to question what they've always taken for granted - that the drugs they take home are genuine and correct. Patients are already asking more questions about their treatment options, how their medicines work etc. They are using sources on the internet - some more reliable than others - to research their condition and their treatment.

Many doctors welcome the interest and pro-activity being shown by patients and appreciate that more communication and discussion with patients is a good thing. Pharma is also going to have to open up more to the scrutiny of the public. There needs to be visible and accountable action by pharma to minimise the risk to patients of counterfeit medicines.

The industry needs to explain the problem, reassure the public that it is taking steps to help to find the criminals and prosecute them and equip the public with information so that they can help to establish where these drugs are entering the supply chain.

The fashion industry protects its brands fiercely and companies are actively involved in stopping counterfeiters and yet a fake handbag isn't likely to endanger anyone's health. It seems strange, therefore, that an industry where people's lives are at stake, is not investing more of its resources in helping to bring counterfeiters to justice.

Research from Together4Health to be presented at the end of October in Dublin may wake the public up to the realisation of the scale of the problem and apply pressure on those that should be working together to combat this problem. That includes the pharmaceutical industry itself, the Government, the EU, the regulators and even the internet service providers that are making much of this traffic so easy. Patients can be a willing and useful resource in the fight against the counterfeiters.

The Author
Simon Williams is director at Together4Health email or visit to register your interest in this research and download it after 26 October 2007

2nd November 2007


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