Fake medicine is real business in Africa

There’s nothing covert about Roxy, a huge market in Abidjan selling counterfeit medicine, the cause of about 100 000 deaths annually in the world’s poorest continent, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Located in the bustling Adjame quarter of Côte d’Ivoire’s main city and commercial hub, the haven for fake medicine has been targeted time and again by authorities and stockpiles burnt.

But it resurfaces every time.

“The police hassle us but they themselves buy these medicines,” said Mariam, one of the many vendors who hawk everything from painkillers and antibiotics to antimalaria and antiretroviral treatments.

“When we are harassed we always come to an arrangement with them to resume our activities,” she said.


Fatima, another hawker, said: “Many people come here with their prescriptions to buy medicine, even the owners of private clinics.”

She said there was a “syndicate” controlling the sector, which held regular meetings to fix prices and control supply levels.

The illicit sector has a turnover of at least 10% of the world’s pharmaceutical business, meaning that it earns tens of billions of dollars a year, the Switzerland-based World Economic Forum estimates, adding that the figure has nearly tripled in five years.

“To sell fake medicines, you need a clientele. The ailing poor are more numerous in Africa than anywhere in the world,” said Marc Gentilini, a specialist in infectious and tropical diseases and a former head of the French Red Cross.

Gentilini said some meningitis vaccines sent a few years ago after an outbreak in arid Niger were fake. The disease kills thousands every year in the arid West African nation.

The WHO estimates that one in 10 medicines in the world is fake but the figure can be as high as seven in 10 in some countries, especially in Africa.

The American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene estimated in 2015 that 122 000 children under the age of five died because of taking poor-quality antimalarials in sub-Saharan Africa, which, along with antibiotics, are the medicines most likely to be out of date or bad copies.

Interpol in August announced the seizure of 420 tonnes of counterfeit medicine in West Africa in a huge operation that involved about 1 000 police, customs and health officials in seven countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Togo.

Geoffroy Bessaud, the head of anti-counterfeit co-ordination at French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi, said fake medicines were the biggest illicit business in the world.

“This phenomenon is spreading. It’s financial attractiveness draws criminal organisations of all sizes,” he said.

“An investment of $1 000 can bring returns of up to $500 000, while for the same kind of investment in the heroin trade or in counterfeit money the amount will be around $20 000.”

Ivorian authorities in May burnt 40 tonnes of fake medicines in Adjame, the biggest street market for fake medicines in West Africa, which accounts for 30% of medicine sales in Ivory Coast.

Offenders remained largely unpunished worldwide and were mainly targeted for breaching intellectual property rights instead of being held responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, the Paris-based International Institute of Research against Counterfeit Medicine said.

Experts have called for a global fight against the sale of counterfeit medicine.

Sanofi said in 2016 it had helped to dismantle 27 clandestine laboratories, including 22 in China and the rest in Indonesia, Ukraine and Poland.

In countries where medical expenses — from medicine to being admitted to hospital — are not even partly reimbursed by the state, the cheap street price trumps the risk factor for many.

The outstanding exception on the continent in fighting the illicit drug trade is South Africa, which has a strictly enforced licensing system. — AFP

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Christophe Koffi
Christophe Koffi
Social and environmental scientist, focused on forest, food security and climate change adaptation.

Related stories

Wheeling and dealing for a Covid-19 vaccine

A Covid-19 jab could cost hundreds of rands. Or not. It’s anyone’s guess. Could another pandemic almost a century ago hold clues for handling the coronavirus today?

Covid-19 disrupts HIV and TB services

While data is still trickling in on how much the pandemic affects health systems, there are far-reaching consequences for people living with HIV and tuberculosis.

The challenges of delivering a Covid-19 vaccine in Africa requires a new approach

It is imperative that we train healthcare workers and participate in continent-wide collaboration

The quiet front line battle of South Africa’s rural nurses

The focus may have been on urban nurses during the Covid-19 pandemic, but those in rural areas suffer similar fates. However, very little is known about how they have been able to cope

Invest in children to boost SA’s recovery

Providing effective, population-scale family support and 21st century transformative education is a nonnegotiable if we are to have any chance of eradicating violence, poverty, and inequality.

WHO’s flawed vaccine plan means well

Drug companies can be forced to ‘help’ competitors when it’s in the public interest. The WHO seeks a similar strategy for a Covid vaccine
Advertising

Subscribers only

The shame of 40 000 missing education certificates

Graduates are being left in the lurch by a higher education department that is simply unable to deliver the crucial certificates proving their qualifications - in some cases dating back to 1992

The living nightmare of environmental activists who protest mine expansion

Last week Fikile Ntshangase was gunned down as activists fight mining company Tendele’s expansions. Community members tell the M&G about the ‘kill lists’ and the dread they live with every day

More top stories

Fifteen witnesses for vice-chancellor probe

Sefako Makgatho University vice-chancellor Professor Peter Mbati had interdicted parliament last month from continuing with the inquiry

Constitutional Court ruling on restructuring dispute is good for employers

A judgment from the apex court empowers employers to change their workers’ contracts — without consultation

Audi Q8: Perfectly cool

The Audi Q8 is designed to be the king in the elite SUV class. But is it a victim of its own success?

KZN officials cash in on ‘danger pay for Covid-19’

Leadership failures at Umdoni local municipality in KwaZulu-Natal have caused a ‘very unhappy’ ANC PEC to fire the mayor and chief whip
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday