Peddling in death

Published: December 2, 2019
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PHOTO: REUTERS

PHOTO: REUTERS

PHOTO: REUTERS The writer is a former editor of The Express Tribune. He tweets @tribunian

Videos of a fake medicine packaging plant uncovered by the customs authorities in Islamabad went viral soon after the raid in November. There has been a lot of hue and cry ever since. But little action.

Authorities discovered during the raid that vitamin bottles were being stuffed with the same green tablets by the unscrupulous persons running this operation. Even more shocking was the fact that this packaging factory was operated by the owners of one of Islamabad’s leading chemists.

Subsequent raids conducted by the Islamabad administration on the shops operated by this and another leading pharmacy showed that such fake multivitamins were being sold all over Islamabad. The administration has since sealed medical stores at F-6, F-7, F-10, F-11, and I-10 sectors. The question is, what will the government do to prevent this happening again.

These vitamins were originally manufactured in Pakistan but were labeled as ‘made in USA’ to rob people in the name of imported vitamins. These tablets are consumed by young and old. In many instances, such vitamins are used by those with failing health or medical conditions as a supplement to their main course of medicines. If these hapless people were eating fake medicines, one can only wonder what effect this had on their overall health. The counterfeiters chose to replicate imported vitamins because they are clearly quite highly priced.

The raids in Islamabad are the tip of the iceberg. They once again put into focus the work of the ministry of health and the Drug Regulatory Authority.

One recalls that in 2017, a report was prepared by the Punjab police for the CM which revealed that 64 out of the 121 drug inspectors in the province are allegedly involved in corruption.

In a first initiative of its kind, the report, which was also shared with the media, revealed that instead of acting against found selling fake drugs, the drug inspectors were found allowing them to play with the lives of patients for monetary benefits.

Most complaints against drugs inspectors were about monthly bribes from pharmacies and medical store owners. The report stated that the drug inspectors were receiving bribes from quacks as well to allow them to continue their illegal practice.

Some drug inspectors were found collecting ‘samples’ of expensive medicines from stores on the pretext of getting them analysed by government labs. But instead of sending them for analysis, they further sold the medicines to other pharmacies, the report states.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that as many as one million people die every year worldwide from ingesting counterfeit medications. In Pakistan, in 2012, in one incident alone, 120 people died after taking counterfeit heart medicine.

In 2010, then interior minister Rehman Malik while addressing the National Assembly estimated that between 45-50% of Pakistani drugs were fake or of substandard quality. While one needs to investigate this further, this itself should make one stand up and demand action. But there has been silence.

According to the Pakistani Pharmacist Association, there are approximately 4,000 licensed pharmacies in Pakistan, but also as many as 100,000 other illegal merchants selling medications.

This year again, the pharma industry asked the federal and provincial health ministries and the DRA to launch a crackdown on the counterfeit drugs mafia which is strengthening its foothold in the country since the debate of prices has emerged. Prices of imported medicines have gone up owing to the rupee devaluation against the US dollar.

But pricing is just one problem. The absence of specific laws, special courts and delay in justice are hampering efforts to curb the spread of substandard and counterfeit goods in the country.

Industry experts say that it is alarming that DRA has not yet been able to resolve fundamental issues like pricing and registrations. There is too much bureaucracy involved in regulating pharmaceuticals in Pakistan. Some say this is done not to protect the consumer but for bureaucrats to make money.

It’s time for a national debate on the rise in fake medicines in Pakistan. Also, we need to think about how we can give exemplary punishment to those who manufacture or sell fake medicine. These are people peddling death. They need to be made an example of.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 2nd, 2019.

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