In its quest to win allies and influence global affairs, China focuses much of its aid on health care in the developing world – not unlike the United States. Yet China has extreme challenges of its own, due to endemic corruption and safety issues.

While China’s health programs, hospitals and medical teams often do provide access to life-saving drugs, vaccines and medical care in Africa and Southeast Asia, problems in the supply chain are already affecting global health in negative ways. Fake drugs threaten China's image in Africa and, more importantly, the health of African people who have been making incremental gains thanks to global aid programs. The issue has been touched on primarily in academic reports, but there has been little serious investigative reporting about how China's health aid is influencing Africa.

Focussing on fake malaria pills, Kathleen McLaughlin traveled to Tanzania and Uganda, two of the countries worst-plagued by the parasite, given their borders on Great Lake Victoria – the world's second-largest lake and home to some of the world's deadliest mosquitoes. The fake pills are, quite simply, everywhere. Nearly everyone has a story about fake medications, mostly malaria pills. Because government hospitals are overloaded and corruption makes drugs go missing from official supplies, thousands of people turn to the local pharmacy and buy potentially life-saving drugs when they get the hallmark malarial fever. But in many cases – up to one third of the time – those drugs are fake. The parasite lives on and, when the drugs contain half-strength of partial active ingredients, the parasite can potentially become resistant to real treatment.

The scientists studying this problem do not shy away from calling it a crisis. The question now is whether governments, NGOs and medical teams can amass the will to fight it. It will take serious collaboration and a commitment from the countries where these drugs are made. The proof is limited at this stage, but most signs point to China. While India's government has rejected the accusations that it is the source, China has remained largely silent on whether its factories are sending fake pills to Africa. Turning the tide and changing China's image there will take more than just words.

Kathleen E. McLaughlin's picture
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Kathleen E. McLaughlin is an American journalist who has been based in China for more than a decade. She has covered everything from labor abuses to politics, economics and social upheaval in China...

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