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Battling counterfeit drugs in Nigeria

The following is an overview of an article that appeared May 28, 2004 in the The Wall Street Journal.

Nigerian Regulator Dodges Violence to Fight Fake Drugs
Dorothy Akunyili Speaks Out Against Bogus Medicines And Makers Lash Back
Bonfire of the Remedies
May 28, 2004; Page A1

On May 28, 2004 The Wall Street Journal carried an article on counterfeit drugs in Nigeria. Counterfeit pharmaceuticals are a giant problem especially in developing countries: estimates by Kristina Lybecker, an economics professor at Drexel University put the annual value of the fake drug market around $50 billion (10% of the $500 billion in medicines sold worldwide). Counterfeit drugs also take a cut out of the revenue -- and reputation -- of large pharmaceutical companies which often offer discounted drugs in poorer countries.
  • Each year counterfeit drugs are responsible for tens of thousands of deaths worldwide. Counterfeit drugs kill with harmful ingredients or by depriving patients of proper treatment.
  • Counterfeit drugs are not only a problem in developing countries -- a number of scandals have been reported in the US and Britain over the past couple of years involving counterfeit medications.
In Nigeria, Dorothy "Dora" Akunyili is head of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (Nafdac), the Nigerian equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. For the past three years Ms. Akunyili has waged an increasingly successful war against counterfeit drugs which has pitted her against some of the West African nation's most wealthiest businessmen. In December 2003, there was an assassination attempt on Ms. Akunyili -- investigators say local drug distributors hired contract killers to murder her.

The attempt on her life hasn't slowed Ms. Akunyili, who "is driven by memories of a personal tragedy. She says her 21-year-old diabetic sister, Vivian, died in 1988 because of a fake-insulin injection." The article continues:
    Under her watch, Nafdac has shut down hundreds of domestic importers of counterfeit drugs and exploited the country's weak laws to expand Nafdac's enforcement powers. She has turned fake drugs into a national issue by burning impounded drugs in public, and has even used high-school essay competitions to publicize the dangers of substandard medicines.

    Fake pills often contain a small portion of the real active ingredient in medicines, but not enough to be effective. Common products include counterfeit versions of antibiotics and medicines for malaria, high blood pressure, asthma and diabetes. Some are made of sugar or chalk. Others are made so cheaply that they are ineffective or dangerous.

    Since Ms. Akunyili took office three years ago, Nigeria's level of fake drugs has fallen to 35%, down from around 70% in 2001, according to Nafdac studies. That is renewing some confidence among foreign investors. Sales volume for Panadol and Glaxo's antimalarial Halfan doubled in 2002 compared with the previous year. But it remains a struggle. Panadol sales fell again last year by 20% after counterfeiters copied a hologram that Glaxo had put on its packaging as a defensive measure.

    The health benefits -- including what Nafdac says is a sharp drop in kidney failures linked to the use of fake drugs -- have caught the attention of neighboring countries. Ghana's government has begun mimicking Ms. Akunyili's model, holding public burnings of confiscated medicines while banning imports from companies already blacklisted by Nafdac.

This article is available to Wall Street Journal subscribers. Because this is a subscription based article I cannot post the full text here.

Copyright Rhett Butler 2003