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A Silent Epidemic

Millions of people regularly buy medicines over the internet, but how many of these transactions are genuine, and how many consumers end up with counterfeit or substandard products? Research carried out recently suggests that as many as 60 per cent of online products could be counterfeit or substandard.

Protecting the safety and authenticity of our pharmaceuticals and drugs has never been more important. The dangers posed to global supply chains by counterfeiting, parallel imports, diversion and even theft are growing the world over, affecting not just the internet but over-the-counter purchases too.

It is a ‘silent epidemic’ that threatens the health and safety of consumers and is forcing drug manufacturers, retailers and regulatory agencies to step up their efforts to protect brands and products. From the BRIDGE project in Europe, a three-year trial to examine the feasibility of item marking systems, to the new Counterfeit Enforcement Act in the US, it is a relevant and current issue the world over.

SCALE OF THE PROBLEM

The recent outbreak of swine flu, and concern about the legitimacy of some antiviral drugs advertised on the internet, has thrust the issue of drug safety firmly into the spotlight once again. It is an issue that affects all countries and a huge range of products, from vaccines for meningitis and anti-cancer drugs to everyday products including paracetemol, antibiotics and Viagra.

Counterfeiting is a major issue, although a lack of solid, reliable data makes it difficult, perhaps impossible, to quantify precisely. The problem is more exaggerated in developing countries, where the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that counterfeit medicines could account for up to 30 per cent of sales. The estimate is around one per cent in the US and other developed countries. In 2007, approximately 3.5 million packs containing counterfeit pharmaceuticals were confiscated at EU borders.

The extent to which this is the tip of the iceberg is unclear, but the lack of true data is an obstacle to tackling it. What is not contested is that the problem is escalating and creating significant problems for manufacturers and consumers. Globalisation, complicated and lengthy supply chains and ‘grey’ markets like the internet have created a boon for counterfeiters. The internet, in particular, has been described as a ‘Trojan horse’, significantly increasing trade in counterfeit products as consumers take advantage of the discounts and greater discretion afforded by online purchases. Online pharmacies should be regulated just as retail pharmacies are, but are far harder to police.

That is not to say that over-the-counter purchases are immune. There


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David Howard is Chair of the International Authentication Association. He is also Director of Product Protection for the Global Brand Integrity Group of Johnson & Johnson Medical Device and Diagnostics. David’s responsibilities include product and package protection through the use of process and technology advancements for the medical device and diagnostic divisions of Johnson & Johnson. Email: info@intlaa.org
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