Wanted dead or alive!

The British think-tank, International Policy Network (IPN), estimates that globally, 700 000 deaths a year are caused by fake malaria and tuberculosis drugs—comparing the death toll to the equivalent of “four fully laden jumbo jets crashing every day. In Africa, despite the statistics available, it is impossible to accurately account for the actual root of the pharmaceutical (pharma) counterfeiting networks in Africa. What further contributes to the unknown is the lack of combined strategy between African nations. There are pockets of law enforcement that are actively fighting the illegal trade, however, it is the pockets of ungoverned territories or the “free to counterfeit” regions that assist in escalating pharma counterfeiting into epic proportions.

Pharma counterfeiting and genocide

African constitutes an area of 30.3 million km². According to the World Trade Organisation (WHO), pharma counterfeiting accounts for 38.5% of the illegal trade. Considering that an approximately 100 000 deaths are attributed to the illegal drug trade, should counterfeiting of pharma products not be considered genocide? In 1983 the Burundian genocide killed 50 000 people, half of a number of deaths occurred from pharma counterfeiting.

In June 2005 — following the discovery that an accredited pharmacy in Canada had dispensed counterfeit Norvasc, Pfizer’s popular blood pressure medicine —11 reported deaths were examined for a link to the fakes. The regional coroner reported that of the 11 deaths, the counterfeit medicine could not be ruled out as a cause for four of them. November 2008, closer to home, 34 Nigerian children, aged four months to three years, died and more than 50 were hospitalised with severe kidney damage after their mothers, wishing to alleviate their children’s teething pains, unknowingly gave them a counterfeit drug.

Genocide is defined by Wikipedia as the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular nation or ethnic group.  The mass killing of people associated with illness could be constituted as a group, and defining deaths by nation from counterfeiting can be done.

The cost of life?

News24 explains the “how” behind counterfeiting as medicines that “contain an inadequate amount of active ingredients, and are sometimes completely devoid of any active ingredients, which can cause major adverse effects and complications for a consumer.”

The theory behind the massive growth in pharma counterfeiting is the pricing. Pharmaceutical companies spend a significant amount of costs on actually getting the product to where it is needed. This cost is directly related to the pricing. Conflict, lack of infrastructure and corruption are all negative contributors to the pricing structures and counterfeiters have identified the growing gap in affordability of these medicines and used this to create a black market for themselves. The further contributor is the criminal penalties for pharmaceutical counterfeiting tending to be far lower than for trafficking narcotics, such as heroin or cocaine and the regulation of drug sale and quality in some countries tends to be extremely poor.

Solving this scourge could lie in the ability to trace the products from factory to consumer. This would ensure that the pharma company would be able to identify if a product is being counterfeited or “lost” on its delivery root. The correct traceability solutions could even indemnity or pinpoint the location of the crime syndicates point of operation, assisting authorities to be able to locate and arrest the main players.

Pharmaceutical companies would need to rid themselves of counterfeiting opportunities through solutions that could keep their products on radar throughout the distribution process. This shift in thinking has worked for European, Asia, and American distribution channels and can work for Africa.