Over the course of just two weeks, the World Customs Organisation (WCO) seized 113 million antimalarial, anti-inflammatory and antibiotic tablets bound for Africa. The true extent of the problem remains unknown. EURACTIV France reports.
Counterfeit drugs affect countries and regions the world over but Africa seems to be particularly under attack.
Since 2012, the WCO, in conjunction with the Institute of Research against Counterfeit Medicine (IRACM), has intercepted more than 750 million illicit drugs in Africa’s ports.
Data regarding the latest mission, carried out in September and released on Friday (20 January), shows that in just ten days, its operations seized 113 million illegal pharmaceutical items in 16 countries.
It’s just a drop in the ocean of what is trafficked on a daily basis through Africa’s largest ports but it gives an idea of the problem. “Though the full extent is difficult to quantify it is scary,” said WCO’s Ana Hinojosa.
China and India
The most significant seizures were made in Nigeria, Benin, Kenya and Togo, but it is the drugs’ countries of origin that is most startling: 97% of fraudulent pharmaceutical products are shipped from China or India.
“Among the medicines discovered by African customs, essential drugs like antimalaria tablets, anti-inflammatories and antibiotics cropped up,” explained IRACM’s Bernar Leroy.
Poor shipping conditions, repackaging and the production of outright fake drugs are among the numerous methods by which medicines are counterfeited. This leads to medications being ineffective, dangerous or, at worse, lethal.
Treatments for serious illnesses like cancer are not excluded either and more than 2 million doses of medication were seized during the last operation.
These fake drugs cause hundreds of thousands of deaths every year and can also have a more collateral effect, as patients can “develop immunity to genuine treatments for certain diseases, like tuberculosis”, explained IRACM’s Jean-David Levitte.
If the fight against the counterfeiters appears to be struggling, then it is mainly down to weaknesses in the authorities’ capability to intervene. African countries often impose more lenient punishments on traffickers.
“The law often hands down ridiculous sentences because it is based on intellectual property and not on the threat to health that trafficking entails,”
Criminals are also aware of the failings in the legal system that allow them to bypass punishment. For example, a container cannot be opened during a customs operation without the importer being present.
“So most traffickers just don’t turn up and the procedure grinds to a halt,” explained WCO’s Ana Hinojasa.
Globally, existing conventions are not much better. The MediCrime Convention, adopted by the Council of Europe in 2010, which provides binding international legislation for counterfeit drugs production and trafficking, has only been ratified by eight of its 47 members (France, Ukraine, Spain, Hungary, Moldova, Armenia, Albania and Belgium) and one non-member, Guinea.
The issue has long been relegated to the bottom of the political agenda but at the 27th annual Africa-France summit in Bamako, Mali, on 16 January, heads of state and government pledged “further solidarity in their efforts against terrorism and illegal trafficking”.
This commitment was also made in the summit’s final declaration, which highlighted “the serious dangers, especially for its people’s health, that the growing trafficking of fake medicines, developed by transnational criminal organisations, poses to Africa”.
There needs to be a change of course, according to Bernard Leroy, who added that “trafficking medication can be a threat to society because it provides traffickers with an estimated 10 to 20 times more revenue than the trafficking of narcotics”.