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Story Publication logo December 24, 2012

Tanzania: When Fake Drugs Can Kill


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Today China focuses much of its foreign aid on healthcare in the developing world. It has achieved...

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AIDS activist Rodgers Stephan is concerned that fake medications have implications far beyond those who have taken them. Image by Kathleen E. McLaughlin. Tanzania, 2012.

Fake painkillers are one thing, but when lifesaving drugs are faked for profit, they can kill.

My first two days in Tanzania this fall, I was trapped in a maze of bureaucracy—requesting interviews, applying for a press card, running from government building to media office with letters and permissions—all to get a single interview with someone at the National Ministry of Health who could speak to the topic of fake drugs. The interview never materialized and in the process I found out why.

The week that I arrived in Africa, thousands of doses of anti-retrovirals (ARVs), the lifesaving drugs given for free to people with HIV and AIDS in this country, had turned up fake. The Tanzanian government's own supplies, donated by major international aid organizations, had been infiltrated by counterfeit medications, risking the very lives of people who depend on the drugs to survive.

Upwards of 10,000 packets of the drugs were found to be fake and as of the last update, more than 2,000 batches were still in circulation. ARVs are miracle drugs when taken correctly, but disruption in treatment can be catastrophic to those living with HIV and AIDS.

The Tanzanian government estimates that 1.4 million of its citizens, 5 percent of the population, are living with HIV and AIDS, and its free drug program has been a major success in extending lives. But with the fake medications came a loss of trust in the program.

"It's a huge problem," said Rodgers Stephan, an AIDS activist who is himself HIV positive and takes the medications.

Stephan said many people have given up on the drugs, for fear they might do harm. They have turned back to traditional medicines and herbalists, whose potions have no proven benefits.

"Even now it's a major challenge. People have stopped taking their drugs and they don't know what to do, who to trust or which place to go," he explained. "It has become a major problem in our community."

In this particular case, the Tanzanian government laid the blame on a local producer, shutting down a factory it says made the fake pills. But the drug maker fought back publicly, releasing statements blaming an unknown manufacturer for copying its package design and tablets, using elements that don't even look exactly the same.

Speaking to local media in early November, officials with the Tanzanian government sought to reassure those with AIDS and HIV that the medications are safe and that they are taking steps to keep fakes out of the supply chain. But for those who took the fake drugs, and those who might not even know their medications were not authentic, the damage has been done.

"The problem now is that nobody knows how to tell when the drugs are fake," the activist Stephan told me. "Even myself, I'm worried."

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