Fake medicines – illegal and substandard pharmaceuticals – have until now largely been a problem in low and middle-income countries. Ranging from lifestyle products to lifesaving medicines, such products are now also on the rise in the Western world. The spread is concerning, as fake medicines can be completely ineffective or extremely toxic.
Part of the problem is that many people are unaware of the risks of such drugs – and they often don’t know they are taking them in the first place. Our recent survey of doctors in Sweden, for example, shows that 36.5% had met patients who they suspected had taken fake medications. The numbers may be similar in other European countries.
As fake medicines are made in several different places worldwide, it is hard to trace their production. What’s more, such pharmaceuticals are usually so well faked – they may look, taste and smell exactly like the original drug – that only lab tests can determine their content.
According to a WHO report published in 2017, about 1-10% of all medicines in low and middle-income countries are estimated to be falsified. A study in Africa showed that up to 70% of medicines against infection in the region were fake. Today, such drugs are increasingly present in high-income countries too, according to the WHO. But exactly how prevalent the phenomenon is becoming is extremely difficult to quantify.
There are increasing reports of fake drugs in Western countries though. A falsified cancer drug, Avastin, was recently discovered by a wholesaler in the Netherlands. And in Germany, both falsified cancer and HIV medicines have ended up in the legitimate supply chain in recent years.
Not all Western countries have been affected by fake medical products in formal healthcare, though, Sweden being one exception. Although regulation of the pharmaceutical market in Sweden and many other European countries is effective, illicit products are increasing in the legal market so it may just be a matter of time before they do if no effective measures are taken.