More than one-third of malaria medicines tested in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa were fake or faulty, according to a new study that warns shoddy drugs could fuel the rise of hardier parasites.
Drugs meant to combat malaria are catnip for counterfeiters because of high profits and scant punishment for fakes, the new study published in the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal says. Many countries suffering from malaria outbreaks lack laboratories equipped to check whether drugs are legitimate.
Weak drugs could jeopardize the strides made over the last decade in stopping malaria as more resistant parasites survive and breed, worsening the problem. As many as 1.2 million people die annually from the disease, which exacts its heaviest toll on children in much of Africa and Southeast Asia.
A team of researchers funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health pored over published and unpublished studies of thousands of drug samples dating back more than a decade to gauge the extent of the problem. The studies spanned 28 countries including Cambodia, Myanmar, Nigeria and Kenya.
More than a third of drugs fell short in chemical testing in the studies. Almost a third were deemed fakes because they contained none of the needed drugs or different ones and had fraudulent packaging, if their packaging could be analyzed. Others, while not fake, were found to be faulty because of poor manufacturing or storage, the study said.
The findings should be "a wake-up call" to clamp down on fake drugs, the new study said. No international laws exist to prosecute drug counterfeiters who cross borders, and not all affected countries have national laws to address the problem, the researchers wrote. Making and distributing fake malaria drugs "should be prosecuted as crimes against humanity," they argued.
Some countries have tried to tackle the issue: Ghana randomly screened drugs and punished counterfeiters, while Cambodia shut down illegal pharmacies. Simple, accurate field tests could help combat fakes, along with better regulations and more international coordination, the study concluded.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: An Anopheles gambiae mosquito, a vector for the malaria parasite, draws blood at a research facility in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: Stephen Morrison / European Pressphoto Agency