A new study shows African citizens consider themselves ill-informed about the dangers of falsified drugs
Imagine a poor African mother who gives up food for herself so that she can afford essential medicine for her desperately ill child. Now imagine that for her sacrifice, she winds up instead with a fake medicine. Unaware that she is a victim of a criminal scam, she gives the fake medicine to her child – only to watch her child suffer or even die as a result.
This is a nightmare scene that’s repeated thousands of times every year across the world because of the multi-billion-dollar global trade in falsified medicines. This reality is particularly real in developing regions on the African continent.
"Falsified medicines are a major health issue in Africa, indeed hundreds of thousands to millions of people are exposed throughout the whole continent,” said Geoffroy Bessaud, Director for Anti-Counterfeiting Coordination, Sanofi.
Yet, many African citizens consider themselves ill-informed about the dangers, according to a new survey conducted by in April 2018 to provide a reference to understanding patient perceptions regarding drug counterfeiting in different parts of the world.
The online survey of 2,519 people in five countries in Francophone and Anglophone Africa (Egypt, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya and South Africa) showed that 97% of respondents don’t believe they know enough to be able to protect themselves from fakes, even though most people are aware of their existence and 44% have actually encountered them.
The study completes part of a series of perception studies carried out by Sanofi with more than 20,000 people in Europe, the US, Asia and Latin America since 2014.
The global risk of falsified medicines in Africa
Since 2013, WHO has received 1500 reports of cases of substandard or falsified products. Of these, antimalarials and antibiotics are the most commonly reported. Most of the reports (42%) come from the WHO African Region.
Falsified medicines or fake medicines may contain too little of the drug’s active ingredients to be effective. In other cases, they contain no active ingredients at all, or impurities, or toxic substances.
While totally inactive medicines leave patients completely at the mercy of their illness, medicines with some active ingredients are still often harmful– and not only to the patient.
“Anti-infective medicines, especially falsified antibiotics and anti-malaria drugs, containing an inadequate amount of the active ingredient may promote drug resistance”, said Bessaud.
Searching for falsified medicines
For many African countries the proportion of fake medicines may reach 20% to 30% of the market, even more depending on the therapeutic classes concerned.
The distribution channels in developing regions such as Africa are less controlled, and it is more difficult to prevent falsified medicines from infiltrating supply networks. This is in contrast to the majority of industrialized countries (Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, the United States and the greater part of the EU) imposing effective market regulation and control systems. In these regions fake medicines are a very rare occurrence and represent less than 1% of total market value.
The falsified medicine industry has become more and more adept at manufacturing falsified medicines that are increasingly realistic-looking— cheating people who think they’re getting the real thing. While that means that falsified medicines in Africa can appear even in local pharmacies supplied by official government distribution centers, there can be an even greater danger in the online trade.
Not surprisingly, the Internet has also become a major vector for fake medicines. One out of two medicines sold on websites concealing their physical address are fake.
Yet the survey found that nearly a quarter of respondents had made drug purchases online, even though the majority of those people believed they were taking a risk. The most common reason for buying online was to obtain a medicine that wasn’t available to them locally; other major drivers were to save time and money, or to make a purchase discreetly.
"The results of this study demonstrate once again that there is a major lack of information about the reality of the scourge of drug counterfeiting. “Patients may then fail to receive the treatment they need,” said Bessaud.
“It is crucial that the public be better informed of the risks affecting particularly, but not only, developing countries. Our ambition is to contribute to increasing awareness on the part of all entities so that collective and worldwide understanding enables us to fight even more efficiently against this crime and ultimately to protect patients."
To know more
(1)Counterfeit medicines are valued at around $ 200 billion, more than for illicit trafficking in prostitution and marijuana. Source = World Economic Forum, Global Risks, Sixth edition, An Initiative of the Risk Response Network, 2011, p. 23. IRACM 2015