Africa is the dumping ground for 40% of the world’s reported fake medicines

Artificial intelligence doesn’t come with a warning label.
Artificial intelligence doesn’t come with a warning label.
Image: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko
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Access to basic healthcare is already out of reach for so many in poor countries, now a new study reveals that the medicines people are able to get hold of may be making them sicker.

One in ten medical products in developing countries are either substandard or completely falsified, the World Health Organization revealed on Nov. 28. Many of these make their way to Africa, with 42% of the 1,500 reports of such medication coming from the continent.

The fake or subpar medications are not only eating into the budgets of the health ministries who buy them in bulk, they’re also weakening the immune systems of the individuals who take them.

Most of the reported drugs were for antibiotics or anti-malaria treatments. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimates that an additional 116,000 deaths are caused each year by falsified or substandard malaria medication. The cost of these fake drugs is about $38.5 million to patients and health ministries.

Incidents of falsified or substandard medications are found even among generic or patented drugs, WHO said. A further study showed an estimated 10.5% failure rate in all medical products in low and middle-income countries.

“Imagine a mother who gives up food or other basic needs to pay for her child’s treatment, unaware that the medicines are substandard or falsified, and then that treatment causes her child to die. This is unacceptable,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general.

Globalization has made the distribution of these false treatments easier: the manufacture of the drugs and packaging take place in different countries, and then are assembled in and distributed from yet another country. Offshore banking and front companies make it harder to trace the source of these drugs, WHO found.

Before 2013, there was no global reporting system, which means the numbers WHO has uncovered from the approximately 1,500 cases are likely only a fraction of the scale of the problem. The study on the failure rate of medicines, for example, involved only 48,000 samples.

What is certain is that the false drugs weaken patients’ ability to fight disease in the future, even when they’re finally able to access proper healthcare. Substandard and falsified medication increases the risk of anti-microbial resistance, according to the United States Pharmaceutical Convention (USP).

When treated with the incorrect drugs, bacteria and viruses are able to develop a resistance to treatment, making them more dangerous. Anti-microbial resistance could cause an additional 10 million deaths by 2050, and cost the global health system $100 trillion, according to USP (pdf).