Ask someone in the Brussels bubble what the biggest breakthrough in improving global health would be, and they will probably talk about the need for effective vaccines for malaria, HIV/Aids and tuberculosis.
Few would deny the need to combat these long-standing killers. But fake and substandard medicines are just as deleterious to the health of millions as the lack of effective vaccines and treatments.
They have become a global healthcare problem of pandemic dimensions. 2,800 people die every day from falsified medicines in the world, says the World Health Organisation.
Around 10% of drugs in the supply chain are fake. Hard data on the precise economic and human cost of the trade in fake medicines is sketchy, but the WHO reckons it is worth around $30 billion per year.
Wealthy European countries are also affected, but the problem is particularly acute in developing regions, especially in Africa, where between 30 and 60% of the medicines in circulation are believed to be substandard or fake.
If fake medicines kill, substandard ones – including insufficient or out-of-date ingredients – don’t help either. Instead, they make diseases much more drug resistant.
For too many people, the drugs don’t work. But very little has been done about it.
The EU executive’s FP9 programme is the instrument that funds health related research and development, covering vaccines and anti-microbial resistance. It will be up for review later this year as MEPs and ministers begin negotiations on the next seven-year EU budget framework.
As one of the few jurisdictions to already have legislation, and a regime of sanctions and criminal penalties covering fake medicines, the EU is in a stronger position than most. That should allow it to assume a leadership position.
Perhaps not. “Some member states are still reluctant to acknowledge the scale of the
problem,” says Oscar Alarcon-Jimenez of the Council of Europe, who deals with the
MEDICRIME convention on counterfeit medicines. Only four EU countries have ratified the
Medicrime convention, he said.
But in a globalised market, we need a global approach. The World Health Assembly meeting in May would be a good place to start. EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis is one of the most respected policy-makers in the field.
The very least that consumers across the world can expect is that the medicines they buy are genuine – the drugs must work. So, Vytenis, make tackling fake drugs part of your political legacy.
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Views are the author’s