Fake drugs hurt patients and pharma

Your Word on Health bloggers suspect that there’s probably not a single one of our readers who hasn’t, at one time or another, received a spam e-mail promising erectile dysfunction drugs at bargain prices.  While annoying, we can get rid of these with fast and judicious use of the delete button.Counterfeit drugs, made in Asia and other emerging markets, are however a more serious and growing problem.  According to the Pharmaceutical Security Institute (PSI), last year, almost 1,700 incidents of counterfeit drugs were reported worldwide –  triple the number in 2004.Estimates for the size of the counterfeit drug market range from $75 billion to $200 billion a year.  The World Health Organization suspects that more than 50% of the medicine bought from certain illegal websites are fake. As frightening as that figure is, the market is probably much bigger because many cases are hard to detect…and the problem is expected to get worse.

Fake drugs are a “money machine.” Sales are growing at twice the rate of legitimate pharmaceuticals, says Peter Pitts, president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest.  A weak economy along with rising drug prices are likely leading consumers to seek out cheaper products online or from unauthorized providers.

However, others believe that it’s not cheaper prices that drive consumers to counterfeit medicine, but their “lack of education and awareness of the dangers.” Counterfeit medicine may include too much, too little or none of the ingredients found in the real product, causing injury and, in extreme cases, death.

While fake drugs have been around for decades, the Internet’s growth and the popularity of Pfizer’s erectile dysfunction drug Viagra in the 1990s created the “perfect storm” to fuel this underground industry.

Today, drug rings in Asia, particularly in China and India, are increasingly churning out fake versions of popular brands and generics, then selling them to consumers online or in the black market.

Counterfeiters are now able to fake drugs so well, even experts find it hard to distinguish the copies from the real deal. And they’re able to replicate security devices such as holograms only a few months after pharmaceutical companies put these features on their packages.

You can make more money in counterfeit drugs than heroin,” says Tom Kubic, CEO of PSI. “There’s a major financial incentive for criminals because of the low risk of detection and prosecution.”

Now, drugmakers are fighting back.  Most pharmaceutical companies routinely gather information about fake drugs and pass it along to authorities. Some are even sharing such information with their competitors, sometimes leading to raids of suspected manufacturing facilities.

Fake medicines put both the reputation of the industry and, even more importantly, patients’ lives at risk.  They also divert consumers away from the legitimate products.

The FDA has produced some great resources to educate people about dangers of fake drugs.

Along with tips for buying medicines, the Agency’s website offers summaries of recent safety alerts and how to spot and report fraudulent or dangerous products.

One example of this is their “Warning Signs” of an unsafe drug web site.

They advise consumers to stay away from any site that:

  • offers prices that are dramatically lower than the competition
  • may offer to sell prescription drugs without a prescription—this is against the law
  • sends you drugs with unknown quality or origin
  • gives you the wrong drug or another dangerous product for your illness
  • doesn’t provide a way to contact the web site by phone

Seems the old adage “you get what you pay for” applies to drugs too

Hang on to your head! – New hope for migraine sufferers

Last week gene detectives revealed an important clue that could bring hope to millions of migraine sufferers worldwide.

After poring over the genetic profiles of more than 50,000 people, scientists announced that they had found the first inherited link to one of the most common types of the disease. This could be a huge breakthrough, both in terms of health, economics and quality of life.

Recent statistics from the National Institute of Health suggest that 11.7% of Americans (17.1% of women and 5.6% of men) suffer from migraines.  In Europe, the figures are reportedly even higher.  According to the World Health Organization (WHO), migraine is one of the top 20 diseases in terms of handicap. Indeed, a 2009 study put migraine’s economic cost on a par with diabetes.

Despite this, migraine is often perceived as a condition that imposes a minimal burden on society. Indeed sufferers are often accused of malingering.  These misperceptions persist, in part, because the disorder is episodic and rarely causes long-term physical disability. It’s also under-diagnosed and under-treated. As such, analyses of claims data underestimate the condition’s prevalence and economic impact.

In this latest breakthrough, scientists from 40 medical centers compared the genetic profiles of those who suffered from migraines with people who were otherwise healthy.  What they found was a tiny but telltale variant of DNA that boosts the risk of getting migraines by about a fifth.

This is the first time we have been able to peer into the genomes of many thousands of people and find genetic clues to understand common migraine,” said Aarno Palotie, head of the International Headache Genetics Consortium.

Although previous research has found links for some extreme forms of migraine this is the first to pinpoint an association for common types of the disease.

The tiny genetic variant, or allele, is called rs1835740.

Lying between two genes on Chromosome 8, rs1835740 allows glutamate – a messenger chemical to accumulate in junctions between brain cells.  According to the team, accumulated glutamate then unleashes the migraine.  Although the authors say further work is needed to confirm the findings, if confirmed, all scientists have to do is find a drug that prevents glutamate build-up.

Easier said than done?  Only time will tell.

Meantime,  SRxA’s Word on Health would love to hear from you with your migraine stories and tips.