The fight against falsified medicine

The threat of falsified medicines is growing. According to the Pharmaceutical Security Institute incidents are up 38% from 2020. Falsified medicines put patients at great risk of being harmed or failing to receive the treatment they need.

Although falsified medicines, also known as counterfeit, fake or substandard, are an issue that impacts all countries, low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) bear the most significant burden where 1 in 10 medical products are estimated to be substandard or falsified.

These countries often struggle with limited resources, regulatory challenges, and insufficient healthcare infrastructure, making them vulnerable to the infiltration of falsified medicines into their supply chains.

What are falsified medicines and what do they mean for people’s health?

Falsified medicine refers to products that deliberately misrepresent their identity, composition, or source. These products can range from drugs with incorrect active ingredients, improper dosages, or even completely falsified packaging. In LMICs, where healthcare systems are already strained, the presence of such substandard drugs exacerbates health challenges, jeopardising the lives of countless individuals.

IMAGE: James Buck / Project HOPE

The consequences of falsified medicine in LMICs are dire and complex. Here are just some of the impacts these medicines can have:

•      Treatment failure: substandard drugs often lack the required therapeutic efficacy, leading to treatment failure and prolonged illnesses.

•      Drug resistance: incomplete or ineffective treatment contributes to drug resistance, rendering standard treatments ineffective against previously treatable diseases.

•      Worsening health conditions: patients unknowingly consuming falsified medicine may experience adverse reactions and exacerbated health conditions, putting their lives at risk.

•      Loss of trust: the prevalence of counterfeit drugs erodes public confidence in the healthcare system, hindering efforts to improve healthcare-seeking behaviours.

How do falsified medicines infiltrate the market?

The global nature of the manufacturing process of medicines increases the chance of fraudulent products entering the system. Medicines manufactured in Country A may be sent to Country B, where it is processed into their formulation. It may then be packaged and labelled in Country C and distributed across borders to be sold to consumers in further countries D, E, F...

The growth of e-commerce also contributes to this trend by making it easier to purchase medicines online, often from unauthorised sources. The entry of falsified medicines into the supply chain of LMICs exploits weaknesses in the distribution and regulatory systems:

•      Weak regulatory oversight: Limited resources and inadequate regulatory capacities in LMICs make it challenging to detect and prevent the infiltration of falsified drugs into the market.

•      Illicit manufacturing: Unregulated and unscrupulous manufacturers produce falsified medicines, flooding the markets with cheap alternatives to genuine medications.

•      Informal markets: A significant portion of medicine distribution in LMICs occurs through informal channels, where counterfeit drugs can easily infiltrate due to weak monitoring and control.

•      Cross-border trade: Inadequate border controls and international cooperation enable the smuggling of falsified drugs from one country to another.

What is IHP doing to address the issue?

Addressing the falsified medicine crisis in LMICs requires a multi-faceted approach. Medical donations like those made through IHP can play a vital role in countering some of these issues. Here’s how:

By supplying genuine, high-quality medicines directly from pharmaceutical companies, we ensure that the patients we reach have access to safe and effective treatment.

IHP is regulated by the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA) – this means we are held to the same standards as the pharmaceutical industry itself, and therefore, ensure all of the medicines we handle uphold standards.

Falsified medicine often preys on those who cannot afford authentic drugs, pushing them towards counterfeit alternatives. By providing all medication free of charge to patients, we are eliminating the financial barrier to access and reducing the demand for counterfeit drugs. This approach guarantees that individuals receive the necessary treatment without compromising their health.

Olatunji Olaleye has overseen the delivery of IHP's Essential Health Packs across West Africa

Many people fall prey to the use of falsified medicine, which is another huge problem…the work of International Health Partners is incredibly important, and the medication used was able to give a lease of life to vulnerable people who would otherwise be unable to afford treatment.

– Olatunji Olaleye –

One of the most alarming consequences of falsified medicine is the erosion of trust it causes in healthcare systems, undermining the integrity of healthcare providers. Free distribution programmes like ours help to rebuild trust by demonstrating a commitment to the well-being of individuals. When patients receive free, genuine medication, it helps instil confidence in the healthcare system, encouraging them to seek proper medical care. This trust fosters patient-doctor relationships and promotes regular healthcare-seeking behaviour, reducing the reliance on falsified medicine.

Our self-developed donations software platform, Boaz, is also helping in the fight against falsified medicine by providing track and traceability on all donated medicines, helping to maintain the supply chain.

IHP sources high-quality medicines directly from pharmaceutical companies, ensuring that the patients we reach have access to safe and effective treatment

What about globally? Is anything being done?

Elsewhere, changes are also beginning to be made. In 2019, the African Union countries signed a treaty to create the African Medicines Agency (AMA) to strengthen national regulatory systems. In 2020, seven African leaders developed the Lomé Initiative, placing falsified medicine at the top of the political agenda through a political declaration and legally binding agreement to criminalise the trafficking of counterfeit medication. The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified the issue as one of the urgent health challenges for the next decade. It has launched the WHO Global Surveillance and Monitoring System and WHO Member State Mechanism to work together with global actors to prevent, detect and respond to substandard and falsified medical products.

Protecting patients from falsified medicines and detecting the products that get into the supply chain is essential to patient safety and healthcare around the world. We can only combat the threat of falsified medicine and safeguard the health of vulnerable populations worldwide through collective efforts and global cooperation.


Please support us in the fight against falsified medicines by donating today.

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Whatever you give, you could be making a life-changing, even life-saving difference to someone every month.

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