We buy cheap bootleg DVDs and fake Coach purses from random street vendors with little hesitation. But what about buying your daily medication from them, too?
This is a common practice in the developing world. In Zimbabwe, for example, street vendors offer the poverty-stricken populace medicine for a price five to eight times less than a legitimate pharmacy.
The trouble with these cheap meds is that they're often not the real thing. One study cited by the World Health Organization says the counterfeit medication industry could reach $75 billion by 2010. Although the industry's reach is worldwide, it's more prevalent in developing countries. The WHO says "many countries in Africa and parts of Asia and Latin America have areas where more that 30% of the medicines on sale can be counterfeit."
Though buying counterfeit medications can save a lot of money, it is also very risky. In 1995, 89 Haitian children died from taking counterfeit cough syrup that contained the active ingredient in antifreeze instead of the real medication. Governments in the developing world often lack the resources to track and prosecute these illegal manufacturers and sellers. The Internet is only making the fight harder.
Major pharmaceutical companies are protecting their products from counterfeiters using different methods. Today, companies like GlaxoSmithKline use holographic labels or stickers to make their product more distinguishable from fakes. Recently, counterfeit drugmakers have, however, been able to convincingly duplicate many of these stickers and packaging. For example, one study revealed that about half of Southeast Asia's supply of the anti-malarial drug Artesunate was counterfeit despite holographic packaging.
The easiest and fastest way to decrease the market for these fake drugs is for consumers to increase their own awareness. Many news organizations have begun to help. In this video, Al-Jazeera reports on counterfeit drugs in Mauritania.