The plague of counterfeit medicines

The traffic in counterfeit medicines is booming. It misleads, and it kills. A University of Liège team is making Rwandan and Congolese health care workers aware of the problem, whilst informing and training them, so that they may detect and monitor these products, thanks to made to measure appropriate technical systems.

Nigeria, 2008: 100 babies die after having received counterfeit syrup, presented as containing paracetamol. Panama, 2006: counterfeit excipients slipped into medicines cause 300 deaths. According to the Food and Drug Administration (United States), counterfeit medicines have infected and polluted 10% of the global market. In Central Africa, these false products or products of lower quality exceed 25%. To the great profit of certain actors: the traffic in fake medicines is said to be 25 times more profitable than the traffic in drugs. For sales made over the internet or face to face, they offer impressive profits, ranging from 6,000 to 20,000%.


In a report published in December 2008, the World Health Organisation declared that in 2007 it had registered over 4 counterfeit medicines per day. Thus, in Africa, from 30 to 70% of antimalarial drugs in circulation are fake, entirely or partially. Medicines based on artesunate, aimed at fighting against chemio-resistant malaria, have been faked by up to 40%. 80% of the stocks of the Congo’s dispensaries contain counterfeit substances. In 37% of cases counterfeiting targets products in the genito-urinary domain, 12% of cases concern anti-infection ingredients, and the same proportion is true of products aimed at the central nervous system (1). To ensure the quality of medicines and to counter – at their level – the development of counterfeits in poor or developing countries, Philippe Hubert, Roland Marini Djang’eing’a and Eric Ziemons, three University of Liège pharmacists, are co-ordinating two long term projects.

The first of these two projects is being carried out in Rwanda and the Congo: Edulink Europ, the training programme they have developed, aims to, amongst other things, make the healthcare workers involved aware of the problem of counterfeiting medicines. Their second project has just become the subject of a publication (1): its goal is to promote low-cost equipment to make available apparatus with reduced costs-in-use destined for medicine analysis laboratories, and to test their effectiveness in monitoring these products. The effective performance of these different systems has been demonstrated. This equipment will thus be used to fit out two African laboratories. The training given within the framework of the Edulink will also be put into practice there, by carrying out on site medicine analysis and monitoring, and at a cost accessible for developing countries and local producers with limited means.

(1)  ‘Reliable low-cost capillary electrophoresis device for drug quality control and counterfeit medicines.’ R.D.Marini, E.Rozet, M.L.A. Montes, C.Rohrbasser, S.Roht, D.Rheme, P.Bonnabry, J.Schappler, J.L. Veuthey, Ph. Hubert, S.Rudaz, Journal of Pharmaceutical & Biomedical Analysis, August 2010.

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