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The Real Consequences of Fake Medicines

This month, African leaders will pledge to introduce tough criminal legislation to combat the proliferation of substandard and fake medical products – a deadly business that disproportionately affects the poorest and most vulnerable. They need and deserve international support.

LONDON – Niger’s government is sounding the alarm about bogus meningitis vaccines – and it is not the first time. Five years ago, hundreds of Nigerien people died after receiving fake vaccines. The problem, of course, is not vaccines. It is the widespread distribution of substandard and falsified medical products. And it is a problem that disproportionately affects Africa.

The global market for medicines that are substandard (failing to meet quality specifications) or falsified (with the composition, identity, or source deliberately misrepresented) is estimated to be worth up to $200 billion, or 10-15% of the total pharmaceutical market. But it could be much bigger: according to the World Health Organization, which relies largely on voluntary reporting by health-care professionals, we may know about “just a small fraction” of all cases.

What we do know is that the problem is particularly acute in Africa. In 2013-2017, 42% of substandard and falsified medicines found were on the continent. This is undermining Africa’s hard-won progress on health, not least by eroding trust in nascent health-care systems.

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