Drug fakes, Asia's 'murderous' trade
By CNN's Marianne Bray
HONG KONG, China -- Fake drugs are an unstoppable plague in Asia that puts scores of lives at risk.
A recent study shows many drugs in poor countries are counterfeit, with Asia's "porous" borders making it easy for criminals to peddle their goods across the region.
The Southeast nations of Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar have proved especially prone to fake pills.
New technology also plays its part. In the latest crackdown on the trade, a man in east China has gone into hiding after selling 400,000 fake Viagra pills to unwitting and disgruntled on-line customers, who called the police.
In the Mekong delta region, which is susceptible to tropical diseases, a survey showed almost 40 percent of anti-malarial pills bought in 104 shops had no trace of the drug artesunate, even though the packaging claimed it was an ingredient.
Bangkok's Mahidol University and Oxford University researchers who conducted the survey, and whose results were published this week in "The Lancet" medical journal, described the trade in fake drugs as "murderous."
The researchers said these fake pills would undoubtedly have caused malaria patients to die.
Those who had taken the genuine article are likely to have survived, they added.
Fake drugs, which span a plethora of pills including contraceptives and AIDS treatments, make it difficult to treat killer diseases in the developing world.
They also contribute to bacteria, viruses and other microbes becoming increasingly tough to treat in the West, with many people developing resistance to even the strongest drugs, scientists say.
"The illicit trade in counterfeit anti-malarials is a great threat to the lives of patients with malaria," the researchers said.
This view is widely echoed by scientists and officials across the world, who say it is difficult to know just how many people it affects.
"Every day people die because of counterfeit drugs," Dr. Idrissou Abdoulaye, senior official at the Ministry of Health of Benin, said at a WHO assembly late last year.
"How many? We'll never know. But they keep buying these drugs because they're cheaper."
Fakes often come in poorly forged packaging, without the proper holograms and registration numbers -- but lure buyers by being cheaper than the real drug.
While the researchers said the use of a simple dye will highlight which anti-malaria drugs are genuine, their findings have sparked calls for better policing and quality control among drug makers across the board.
Alain Li Wan Po of the Center for Evidence-Based Pharmacotherapy at Aston University in Birmingham, has urged measures be found to raise drug standards and combat fraud.
While he admitted it was difficult to curb the trade, especially with corrupt governments, he did say that training local drug manufacturers and carrying out regular independent quality checks could be good first steps.
"Drug companies making genuine products can of course also help by considering affordability in their pricing strategies, and so make fraud less profitable," said the professor, who was not involved in the study.
His comments come as pressure mounts on major drug companies, such as Pfizer, to make drugs more affordable for those living in developing countries, who are not only very poor but also at much higher risk of catching diseases.
Early this month, Pfizer said it would expand its free distribution of Diflucan -- a drug used to treat two types of infections common in AIDS patients -- to 50 of the world's least-developed countries.
Meanwhile, in the latest fake trade case, Mo Yunbiao set up an underground factory in the town of Jiangkou in China's eastern province of Zhejiang to counterfeit the anti-impotence pill Viagra, selling through his virtual shop, the Beijing Youth Daily reported.
Alerted by disgruntled consumers nationwide, police investigated the case but not before Mo fled, the newspaper said. Police were searching for him.
The authorities seized an additional 100,000 of the fake blue pills before they were sold, the newspaper said.
Mo sold the pills at a wholesale price of five yuan ($0.60) through his on-line shop, much cheaper than the retail price of 90 yuan ($11).
Beijing launched a campaign in April to crack down on fake products and curb what leaders called "economic chaos."
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