News Stories

When Medicine Kills

The US now spends around $15 billion a year fighting illegal drugs that are often grown on foreign soil, while medicines that are produced right here in the US are killing people. No one knows exactly what share of medicines are fake, badly made, or stolen.

Bad drugs are a global problem, especailly in "third world" countries where officials can be bribed, health systems lax and consumers are desperate. But it can happen right here in the US too.

One recent example is the at least 12 deaths caused by deaths from a fungal meningitis outbreak linked to contaminated epidural steroid injections distributed by a compounding pharmacy in Massachusetts.

The CDC is concerned about how much higher the death toll will climb, since they have estimated that about 13,000 people received the potentially contaminated injections in 23 states.

Fungal meningitis is a type of meningitis that in this case was caused by aspergillius, a common mold that somehow tainted vials of the epidural injections. It causes inflammation of the spinal cord and protective membranes covering the brain, which generally leads to an infection in the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord.

Not everyone who got a contaminated shot will get sick, and the number of cases may continue to rise for some time, since it can take up to a month for fungal meningitis to appear in infected people. The CDC estimates that about 13,000 people received the potentially contaminated injections in 23 states.

Some prescription medicines are outright fakes. A survey by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2011 found that 64% of antimalarial drugs were fake. Over 70% of drugs consumed in Nigeria are imported from India and China, where fake drugs abound.

In the October 13-19th edition of the Economist reports that, "raw materials come from one place and are processed into active ingredients in another. Pill-fillers and coating come from other sources. Manufacturing and packaging may be separate. To reach the dispensary, the drug passes through distribution chains (and may be repackaged). In America 80% of drugs’ active ingredients come from abroad. "

A contaminated blood thinner, heparin, was linked to 149 American deaths in 2007-08. This year it emerged that some vials of the cancer medicine Avastin contained no active ingredient. In the heparin case Chinese suppliers replaced the main ingredient with a cheaper, dangerous substance that still passed authentication tests. The fake Avastin apparently hopped from Turkey to Britain to America, with help from a Canadian online pharmacy."

Countries such a China and India are cracking down (China even executed its top drug official in 2007 for approving untested medicine in exchange for bribes). But the problem continues to grow. According to the Economist, " In January 2009, 81 countries noted counterfeit versions of 20 Pfizer drugs. As of July 2012, 106 had found 60 such fakes."

It's clear that when it comes to drugs, we're fighting the wrong war!

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