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Counterfeit drugs threaten malaria control efforts
Counterfeit drugs are threatening to sabotage breakthroughs in controlling malaria, according to a new study funded by the United Kingdom's Wellcome Trust.
The mosquito-borne disease kills about 800,000 people a year, mostly young children and pregnant women in the developing world.
The latest and most effective treatment for malaria comes from a plant originating in China known as artemisinin.
However, its effectiveness is being undermined by fake and poor-quality anti-malarial drugs that are also being traced back to China and are flowing into Africa and South East Asia.
One of the few studies looking into counterfeit malaria drugs has been produced by the Wellcome Trust-Mahosot Hospital-Oxford University Tropical Medicine Research Collaboration based in Laos.
"It's very difficult to give accurate numbers of the scale," research leader Dr Paul Newton said.
"It's substantial, with hundreds of thousands of packets of fake anti-malarials circulating."
Professor Alan Cowman from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Victoria says counterfeit anti-malarial drugs are not only potentially harmful to the individuals who consume them, but may also help the malaria parasite develop an immunity to artemisinin.
"What the counterfeiters have done is basically watered down the level of drug in the tablet and then they've added in other things that will have no effect against that malaria parasite," said Professor Cowman, one of Australia's leading malaria researchers.
"The parasite will be able to grow but it'll be in a lower concentration of drug, not enough to kill it, but enough to enable it to get used to that level of drug and therefore it makes it more likely that it will develop resistance to that drug."
That is a huge problem when there are not that many drugs working well against malaria.Not immune
Dr Newton says in order to trace the origin of the counterfeit drugs, his study looked at their pollen content and chemistry make-up and have handed this information onto authorities.
"We've been using that information to inform governments so they will be able to do their own criminal investigations," he said.
"That work is being done in collaboration with Interpol and it has succeeded in cutting at least some of the trade in South East Asia."
The counterfeit drug market is difficult to control in many African and Asian countries because pharmaceutical medicines are not distributed by governments but sold privately.
Unfortunately, Australia is not immune to the counterfeit drug market.
Australian Pharmacy Guild national president Kos Sclavos says that with the growth of online shopping, the use of counterfeits is on the rise.
"The reason it's on the rise is as people feel more comfortable with internet shopping, it is expected that we'll see a rise in prescription shopping," he said. "There are items that are not on the PBS, such as private prescriptions, generally drugs for lifestyle, drugs such as erectile dysfunctions or medications that sadly patients are fully aware that they're not through the normal supply chain.
"We're aware in the past where body-building steroids and the like have been intercepted through the supply chain." Mr Sclavos says consuming counterfeit drugs is like playing Russian roulette.