Health agency reveals scourge of fake drugs in developing world

WHO data suggest around 10% of medications in poorer countries are fraudulent or substandard.

One in ten medicines in developing countries is fake or substandard, data from the World Health Organization (WHO) suggest.

Malaria drugs and antibiotics are among the most commonly reported, the agency found. But the problem extends to a variety of medications, including those for cancer, heart disease and HIV, as well as contraceptives and painkillers (see ‘Fake drugs‘).

The latest figures come from a pair of reports1, 2 released by the WHO on 28 November — the agency’s first on fake medicines in about a decade. The findings focus on fraudulent and poor-quality medications in low- and middle-income countries: of 1,500 hundred cases reported to the agency in the past four years, 42% were from Africa, 21% from the Americas and 21% from Europe.

Data on the issue had until now been scant, because there was no mechanism to track the problem. The WHO set up a global system to report inferior medicines in 2013, tracking drugs that are deliberately fraudulent, fail to meet quality standards, or which have not been evaluated or authorized for market. These medications are often referred as counterfeit drugs, but the agency stopped using the term in May to shift the focus from intellectual-property issues to public health.

The cases captured so far are probably just the tip of the iceberg, the WHO says, because many more go unreported. So far, the agency has trained 550 people in 141 countries to track these drugs. “The more one looks, the more one finds,” it says.

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