Fake drugs can contain harmless substances which are ineffective against the disease they are purporting to treat or they can be actually harmful. Substances like rat poison and anti-freeze have been found in fake pills and serums because they mimic the look and taste of the real products.
The confusion with counterfeit drugs is understandable, says Yuanqiong Hu, Legal and Policy Advisor for Doctors Without Borders’ (MSF) Access campaign.
“Legally speaking, counterfeiting may involve trademark infringement but it is not related to the quality and safety of a drug,” she told RFI. “So the use of the term counterfeit causes confusion for patients who do not know if the problem relates to intellectual property or the actual safety of the drug.”
Some counterfeit drugs are safe, although drug companies are not happy with the copyright infringement.
But fake drugs, which can look smell and taste like the real thing, can either kill or harm you, or not be effective at all against the disease you are trying to treat.
They can be made anywhere, though Wilfrid Rogé the director of the Paris-based Research Institute Against Counterfeit Drugs (Iracm) says many are fabricated in the Far East and India, where compounds for real drugs are manufactured.
But the people who make them are only the tip of a large network.
“There are those who make the drugs, there are printers who put new labels on expired pills,” said Roché. “Who are the real traffickers? Everyone is responsible but not really guilty.”
The fake drug market is lucrative because real drugs are expensive.
Generic drugs are a safe alternative, says Yuanqiong Hu of MSF. “When there is no problem with the quality, generics are better choices in terms of managing the budget.”
The key is to get medication from a trusted, regulated provider, like a pharmacist or doctor. But not everyone has access to a pharmacist.
“There is an issue of geographic accessibility,” says Carine Bruneton, a pharmacist and former head of ReMED, a French organisation that helps improve access to drugs in developing countries. “There are still entire [rural] areas in Africa where there are no pharmacies. We need to improve the public sector distribution network, to bring it as close as possible to patients.”
So the message for consumers is to be careful where your medication comes from, as governments and health officials work on supporting legitimate streams to make sure patients get what they need.