Monday, July 24, 2006

[Effects on Health] Fake malaria drugs will 'murder' Africa - WHO

from Independent On line

By Tan Ee Lyn

Hong Kong - Fake China-made malaria drugs, which have flooded parts of Asia and killed many people in recent years, are beginning to show up in Africa where the dummy tablets are expected to take far more lives, a WHO expert has warned.

Malaria kills 1,3 million to three million people a year, or one every 30 seconds, and 90 percent of deaths occur in Africa.

Since 2001, the World Health Organisation has recommended therapies containing artesunate, a compound extracted from a Chinese herb.

But fake artesunate has flooded places such as Cambodia, Laos Vietnam and Myanmar in recent years, resulting in deaths.

There are no estimates because many malaria victims typically reside in remote areas, but experts believe there have been many.

"People die. We have plenty of instances when people have taken these fake drugs and they are dead. It's murder," Kevin Palmer, the WHO's regional adviser for malaria in the Western Pacific, said in an interview.

"They are also showing up in Africa. This is what we are worried about ... there is a massive market there and the malaria there is very serious so we are going to find more people who are really being killed or harmed by these drugs."

Factories in China's southwestern Guilin city churn out the genuine drug, but there are at least 12 different types of copies - with either too little artesunate to be helpful or none at all - that have been traced back to China.

"The path leads to China. We are working with Interpol and Chinese police to try to track them down. Investigations are in progress," Palmer said.

There was no immediate comment from China's Health Ministry.

But the copies aren't going to go away anytime soon.

"They can produce packages that are identical to the Guilin ones. They even have a hologram that matches ... it's a very sophisticated copy. The tablets look the same," he said.

"Even if we close down a factory that is producing them now, there is nothing to say that somebody else is not going to start up again tomorrow because there is big money to be made.

"It is a million dollar business, it's not in somebody's backyard."

While an eight-tablet course costs $2,20 (R14), retailers palm off the fake packets for around $0.40 (R5) and even bill them as "second-tier" drugs but which are essentially the same.

In most cases, victims are very poor and some of them are able to afford only two or three of the fake tablets.

"Most of these find their way into the hands of poor people, they don't have any choice. They buy these drugs with the little money they have and they die," Palmer said.

"They are looking at the price. They have no way of knowing there is any difference, they don't even suspect," Palmer said.

The luckier ones are those who make it to hospital when they fail to get better.

"But many of these cases happen in remote places where there is no access to health services, so even if they realise something is wrong, by the time they get back to the health centre, they are so far gone," Palmer said.

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