More poor quality or counterfeit medicines are being traded across the world, participants at a World Health Organization (WHO) conference were told this week.
According to the latest figures, 771 cases of counterfeit medicines were reported to the WHO up until April 1999. Of 325 of the cases, which have been reported on, 59 percent contained no active molecules, 17 percent were incorrectly mixed, 16 percent contained other products and only seven percent contained the correct mixture of the appropriate drug.
The WHO began a campaign two years ago to help member states to fight counterfeit medicines in partnership with the pharmaceutical industry, saying that use of the counterfeits could be fatal.
It cited the 1995 case of some 2,500 people who died in the west African state of Niger after being inoculated with a fake vaccine against meningitis.
In the same year 89 people died in Haiti after swallowing doses of a cough mixture made of paracetamol and glycol, a toxic chemical used as an anti-freeze in automobile cooling systems.
But a WHO document said that information on the problem was insufficient, adding that no worldwide study was being carried out on the problem.
"We lack information for our data bank," said Michael Holstein, a counterfeit drug specialist with Interpol. He called for a "structured regional approach" involving governments, industrialists and non-governmental organizations, plus an information campaign to the public.
Doctor Margarit Den Boer, a member of the Netherlands section of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF - Doctors Without Borders), criticized those multinationals which marketed drugs under the same name but of differing qualities, depending on their destination -- developing countries or the developed world.
Doctor Jean-Yves Videau, of the Medico-Pharmaceutical Humanitarian Center based in Clermont-Ferrand, central France, carries out between 350 and 400 analyses a year.
He said he had been surprised to find that basic inputs were of increasingly uncertain origin and that quality was declining. "The purer it is, the dearer it is," he said.
He insisted that the dosage of ingredients should be scrupulously respected, especially in the case of antibiotics where under-dosing could build up resistance among patients.
Den Boer blamed the increased trading in counterfeit drugs on ineffective legislation in developing countries.
MSF believes that the fight against fake drugs should be encouraged by the manufacture of generic medicines in the developing countries, with introduction of strict regulation of drugs, with technical assistance from the WHO.
Nazarita Lanuza, of the Philippines, cited the case of her own country, which adopted strengthened legislation in 1966.
Offenders can now be sentenced to jail terms ranging from six months to life while maximum fines were hiked from 125 dollars (140 euros) before 1996 to 25,000 dollars.
"In spite of this, fake drugs are continuing to proliferate," she said. "We need full support from governments, the police, customs services and the industrial sector to take effective joint action," she said -- GENEVA (AFP)
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