It is estimated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that there are close to 100 000 deaths in Africa annually as a result of complications related to counterfeit medicines for common, treatable diseases. This is an alarming statistic. Counterfeit medical products make up 10% of all medicines globally, that number skyrocketing in Africa, Asia and Latin America to 30%. For the African continent that means that you have a one in three chance of being at risk of serious or fatal harm when using any kind of medicine.

The production of counterfeit drugs globally is a billion dollar industry that thrives in Africa and other environments where a combination of poor regulation and difficulty in policing production and distribution processes makes it possible for unethical companies to copy genuine drugs and rush them to market at cheaper rates.

Drugs contain active ingredients which serve specific therapeutic purposes. The presence of the active ingredients in appropriate proportions makes a drug effective. Counterfeit drugs often contain little active ingredients and thus cannot provide the needed therapeutic effects, leading to complications and deaths in certain cases.

Counterfeit drugs have continued to be a problem in the healthcare sector for several reasons, many of which are linked to affordability. Counterfeit drugs are known to be cheaper as there are many options for illicit manufacturers to cut the cost of production through the use of inferior ingredients. Since the average person that buys drugs at a pharmacy has no way of telling the difference between a genuine and counterfeit drug, the buying decision often comes down to price, especially considering that most Africans do not have access to health insurance.

Organizations involved in advocating against counterfeit drugs have noted that the lack of effective penalties for persons or organizations that sell counterfeit drugs are a stumbling block in the eradication of these illegal practices. Poverty is, as always, an aggravating factor. Lack of awareness in developing countries is problematic and needs to be addressed by expansive education programs. A majority of the populace in developing countries simply do not know the dangers of going for the significantly cheaper version of a drug.

It is generally agreed that there is a need to intensify counterfeit drugs surveillance in Africa, which contributes to a significant proportion of deaths from Malaria, for example. A study carried out by US National Institutes of Health showed that one-third of anti-malaria drugs in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are counterfeit. A lot of progress has been made in the war against malaria and other treatable diseases, but the widespread availability of counterfeit drugs undermines this progress and still leads to severe impacts upon communities across the continent.

An often overlooked factor is that counterfeit drugs also aid in the acquisition of resistance by the different organisms that cause disease. Counterfeit drugs do not kill the organism completely, indirectly helping these organisms to find a way to evade the drug in subsequent encounters and ultimately thrive and evolve, posing a global healthcare risk.

Shalina takes the problem of counterfeit medicines extremely seriously and is actively working with authorities in several countries to stamp out this problem and legislate to increase the penalties for repeat offenders. Other strategies, like regular pack innovations and evolving mobile authentication systems are increasingly offering a measurable impact on safety. Ultimately, it is through communication and market vigilance – along with comprehensive awareness and education – that we can make Africa a safer environment for generations to come while still providing safe, affordable medicines that are accessible to all.