NAIROBI, Kenya, Dec 10 – Counterfeiting is big business, but its ills are devastating. Millions of people have lost their lives by reason of using fake drugs courtesy of barons who have no business knowing what disaster they leave in the tread paths.
At a recent workshop held in Nairobi, it was revealed that more than one million people die from malaria each year, the great majority of whom are children in Sub-Saharan Africa under the age of five, and fake anti-malarial drugs are believed to be responsible for a substantial number of these tragic deaths.
It was said that in some parts of Africa, more than half the drugs sold are counterfeit. This is reason enough for urgent intervention, according to Interpol Secretary General, Ronald K Noble.
Mr Noble says counterfeit is crime, which unlike other international threats like terrorism has not received more newspaper headlines and attention from government, law enforcement and the public.
“But it may shock you – as it does me – to know that deaths attributed to counterfeit medicines far outnumber those caused by acts of terrorism globally,” Mr Noble says.
Mr Noble says that over the last 40 years, more than 65,000 people have been killed or injured in transnational terrorist incidents, while estimates of deaths caused by fake medicines range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands annually.
He says that in China alone, almost 200,000 individuals died in a single year from fake medicine but the crisis is not isolated to Africa or Asia.
“There are indications of an emerging and equally serious threat in other regions. The European Commission reported that customs agents intercepted 2.7 million packets of counterfeit drugs at European Union borders in 2006, an increase of 384 percent in just one year,” he says.
He adds: “The situation only looks to get worse, as the current economic turmoil, rising drug costs and shrinking national health budgets suggest that more and more fake medicines could fall into the hands of consumers who go to online pharmacies or other countries in search of cheaper medicines.”
Mr Noble is apprehensive that climate change could well put parts of North America and Europe at risk for malaria, giving criminal networks an opportunity to expand the markets for fake anti-malarial treatments, which are some of the most frequently counterfeited drugs.
This apprehension is shared by Kenya’s Police Commissioner Major General Hussein Ali who says piracy and counterfeits have been rampant in the country especially on pharmaceutical products and entertainment.
Mr Ali says it is imperative that authorities deal with the problem soonest to avert possible deterioration of the ‘already wanting situation’.
The Center for Medicines in the Public Interest predicts global counterfeit drug sales will rise to US$75 billion by 2010, an increase of more than 90 percent in just five years.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates companies lose more than US$200 billion annually to counterfeiting, a sum bigger than the gross domestic products of about 150 national economies.
Here in East Africa, intellectual property infringement costs the combined economies of Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda as much as US$20 million in lost tax revenue each year.
“Of the one million deaths from malaria each year, up to 200,000 could be prevented if the medicines were genuine, and that is only the figure for malaria – we may never really know the untold lives that could be saved if all counterfeit drugs were eliminated,” he explains.
He says that for this reason, Interpol in conjunction with Oasis Africa conducted a four day training workshop for police officers in 26 countries in Nairobi, in a bid to curb organised transactional crime.
He regrets that much as law enforcers need to treat every murder as unacceptable but highlights that insufficient action – on the part of governments, law enforcement, private industry and the public – are allowing counterfeiters, to slowly and invisibly kill millions of people.
“If we are committed to keeping our societies safe, closing the wealth gap and stimulating truly global prosperity, we must do more to stop counterfeiting and we must not do it in a vacuum,” he advises.
The Interpol secretary general believes that there is need to educate the consumers about the true dangers of counterfeits.
He says : “But they must also know that the profits from the sales of fake luxury goods, multimedia items and other non-essential products are used to finance criminal networks’ other activities.”
Last year’s G-8 summit concluded at its meeting in 2007 that: “The fight against product piracy and counterfeiting is a crucial element of criminal law, regulatory and economic policy as well as consumer protection.” It urged national governments to enact the appropriate legislation to counter it and the police to enforce those laws.
He says that there is need to engender broader cooperation across agencies, sectors and borders, like the tremendous cooperation Interpol has enjoyed here in Africa.
According to Mr Noble, operations conducted jointly by police, customs, regulatory bodies, affected industries, Interpol and the World Health Organisation’s International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Task Force (IMPACT) in Tanzania and Uganda last September led to the seizures of medicines and closures of businesses that served as vital links in the chain that moved counterfeit drugs from factory to consumers.
“We have achieved similarly notable results in South America, and recently, in Asia,” he says.