Deadly illicit trade plaguing PH: Fake medicines, how to avoid these Deadly illicit trade plaguing PH: Fake medicines

The Philippines faces a persistent threat of fake over-the-counter (OTC) medications, with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently discovering counterfeit versions of popular OTC drugs such as Kremil S, Alaxan FR, Biogesic, Medicol Advance, Bioflu, and Tuseran Forte, all manufactured by Unilab. Counterfeit medicines are defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as medical products deliberately made as copies of original branded or generic drugs, intending to deceive buyers about their content. These drugs can be found in both formal and informal settings, including hospitals, pharmacies, street vendors, and online marketplaces.

Selling counterfeit drugs is considered a crime under Republic Act No. 9711 (the FDA Act of 2009) and RA 8203 (the Special Law on Counterfeit Drugs). Penalties for violators include imprisonment ranging from six months and one day to 15 years, as well as fines ranging from P100,000 to P5 million, with harsher penalties if the use of counterfeit drugs worsens an illness, causes physical injury, or results in a death.

The Philippines has long been affected by the influx of counterfeit or falsified medicines, with a 2019 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) revealing that between 2013 and 2017, Southeast Asia recorded 460 pharmaceutical crime incidents, including counterfeiting, with the Philippines being the most affected. According to the WHO, one in 10 medical products circulating in low- and middle-income countries is either substandard or fake, leading to serious illness or death.

Fake medicines can contain a variety of dangerous substances, such as corn starch, potato starch, chalk, or toxic chemicals, potentially causing serious health issues or death when ingested for an extended period. Falsified or counterfeit medicines are often manufactured in poor, unhygienic conditions by unqualified personnel, leading to unknown impurities and potential bacterial contamination.

To spot fake medicines, consumers are advised to compare medicines against their usual prescriptions, and be observant for signs such as incorrect ingredients, different properties or side effects, incorrect shapes, sizes, tastes, or colors, improper labeling, outdated or missing expiry dates, and the absence of storage instructions. Additionally, consumers are encouraged to look for lot or batch numbers for verification purposes and to purchase medicine from government-licensed pharmacies.

To avoid fake pharmacies and medicines online, consumers should beware of websites that do not require a doctor’s prescription, are not licensed by the Philippine FDA, do not have a licensed pharmacist on staff, and do not provide clear written protections for personal and financial information. Safe online pharmacies require a doctor’s prescription, provide a legitimate physical address and telephone number, have a licensed pharmacist on staff to answer consumer’s questions, and are listed as licensed on the Philippine FDA’s online verification portal.

The global trade of counterfeit medicines is a significant issue, driven by high financial rewards and weak regulatory environments. To combat this issue, policy options such as upgrading law enforcement capacity, establishing post-marketing surveillance programs, and periodically inspecting points in the production and distribution chain have been suggested.

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