Have you ever had a hard time getting a prescription? Or did you have to wrestle with your insurer to get them to pay for a drug that was vital to your health? Worse, you might be among the 27.5 million uninsured Americans who find it difficult to get medical care, let alone get the prescription drugs you may need.
If you had any of these experiences, you may have turned to the internet to buy medications that would require a prescription. Although there are legal online pharmacies, many online pharmacies are fraudulent and sell counterfeit drugs. Millions of people have fallen victim to these scammers.
Make no mistake: Counterfeit drugs are not real. The active ingredients that help you stay healthy may be missing or diluted to levels that are no longer effective. This can be dangerous and even life threatening as people depend on their medication to stay healthy and sometimes even alive. Many counterfeit medications aren’t drugs at all, but rather cures for snake oil that make people sick – they can even contain dangerous ingredients like heavy metals, street paint, or even rat poison. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 1 million people die each year from these low-quality drugs.
It is estimated that more than 10% of all medicines in the global supply chain are counterfeit in normal times. During COVID-19, the increased use of telemedicine and the emergence of fraudulent doctors has led to an increase in drug fraud. In October of this year, Peter Pitts, president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, a non-partisan research organization, said pharmaceutical counterfeiting was a “spread of cancer.”
Counterfeiting is a major problem that the federal government has to increasingly slow down and ultimately prevent. It is also important that consumers know exactly what these counterfeit drugs are about.
Who suffers from counterfeit drugs?
Expensive prescription drugs and generics in just about any therapeutic class can be counterfeited. Of the $ 4.3 billion worth of counterfeit medicines seized between 2014 and 2016, 35% were classified as antibiotics. Some of the other common culprits in counterfeit medicine are used to “treat” HIV / AIDS, erectile dysfunction, and weight loss. Regardless of what condition or disease the counterfeit drug is intended to treat, the result can be disastrous.
Counterfeit drugs exacerbate other existing health crises. The United States, for example, is in the midst of an opioid epidemic that kills 130 people every day. As of 2018, counterfeit drugs containing illegally imported fentanyl (a powerful opioid) had contributed to this tragedy, causing deaths in 26 states. The US Department of Justice found that at least one case of these counterfeit drugs had been sold through a fraudulent online pharmacy.
Organized crime and fake online pharmacies
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 97% of online pharmacies sell counterfeit drugs. About 35,000 of these illegal pharmacies have emerged in the last decade – many of them promise to deliver drugs without a prescription – and all of them are illegal.
Fraudulent online pharmacies are making sizeable profits to criminals, many of whom have recently benefited from fears of tricking COVID-19 into selling counterfeit preventives or “cures” for the virus. In addition to fraudulent pharmacies, some criminals pose on websites as health care providers. For example, in July, a Utah man posing as a doctor sold a fraudulent cure for COVID-19 despite having no evidence that the product he was selling actually worked.
Perhaps most shameful are the organized criminal organizations that influence regional, national, and international channels of production and distribution of counterfeit medicines. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the fake business is likely to make more than $ 250 billion in profit for criminals a year. There is very little government in place to protect consumers from these dangerous counterfeit medicines.
How to go forward
Unfortunately, some online pharmacies are so similar to reality that even doctors and other health care providers find it difficult to determine if they are authentic.
In most cases, patients should try to avoid buying medication or filling out prescriptions online. However, during the COVID-19 era, turning to online pharmacies is sometimes the convenient option. The Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies operates a website called “Verify Before You Buy” to verify that an online pharmacy is trustworthy. The location is even more important during the pandemic.
In addition to the Review Before You Buy website, consumers can take matters into their own hands by checking that an online pharmacy is licensed by a state pharmacy agency and that the pharmacist’s name is associated with a brick and mortar pharmacy or other medical Union. The FDA’s BeSafeRx campaign is also a great resource of tools to help patients make more informed decisions.
Empowering consumers is a good first step, but to make real systemic change, the FDA needs to make a more concerted effort to educate the public about counterfeit drugs.