ONE THIRD OF the drugs used worldwide to combat malaria are counterfeit, according to a study by leading medical journal The Lancet.
Up to one million people, mostly children, die every year from malaria.
Over the past decade, more than a third of anti-malaria drugs tested in regions where the killer-disease is prevalent, such as Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, has been shown to be either fake or of seriously bad quality.
Health experts have explained that the problem is two-fold: as well as fake medicine contributing to the deaths of those who rely on them due to ineffectiveness, poor-quality drugs that contain small amounts of active ingredients – but not enough to destroy harmful microorganisms – can lead to drug resistance.
There is no suitable alternative to the artemisinin-based drugs currently used to combat malaria; if this ingredient were to stop working, up to 3.3 billion people worldwide would be put at risk of infection from the mosquito-transmitted disease, according to the review.
Such drug resistance has rendered medicines once used to treat malaria useless.
Increased resistance has been noted in recent years in places such as western Cambodian-Burmese border.
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The Lancet research found that, of the 1437 samples of drugs in five classes from seven countries in southeast Asiam 497 (35 per cent) failed chemical analysis. A further 423 (46 per cent) of 919 failed packaging analysis, and 450 (36 per cent) of 1260 were classified as falsified.
In 21 surveys of drugs from six classes from 21 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, 796 (35 per cent) of 2297 failed chemical analysis, 28 (36 per cent) of 77 failed packaging analysis, and 79 (20 per cent) of 389 were classified as falsified.
The research has led to urgent calls for a strong international commitment to tackle drug counterfeiting, much of which occurs in China.
According to researchers, the factors contributing to the production and trade of poor-quality antimalarial drugs are:
- Expensive drugs with large profit margins
- Widespread self-prescription
- Difficulty in testing for quality
- Trade that occurs in free-trade zones or free ports with minimum regulation
- National and global drug legislation being poor or absent, with lax implementation and quality control and few legal penalties
- Scarcity of political will and cooperation from stakeholders
- Proliferation of small pharmaceutical companies without adequate quality assurance
- Poor consumer and health-care worker knowledge about product authenticity
- Stockouts, thefts, and the erratic supply of antimalarial drugs
Read the full research finding by the Lancet>
The Lancet notes that a technical glitch has resulted in a temporary delay in the report being made available online – it will be accessible shortly via the link above