A multi-million shilling fake medicines syndicate that puts lives of thousands of sick Kenyans at risk is thriving in the country, investigations have revealed.
Most of the medicines are counterfeit, expired or concoctions without any active medical ingredients.
According to the International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting (Impac) Taskforce, the concoctions contain rat poison, mercury, lead, boric acid, paints, brick dust, floor wax and other life-threatening foreign bodies. Such poisons cause kidney failure, cancer, developmental defects, strokes, high blood pressure and other health complications.
Prof Charles Maitai of the University of Nairobi’s Department of Pharmacy and a former chairman of the Drug Registration Committee in then Ministry of Health, says the sale of bad drugs in Kenya is a reality.
“In Kenya, post-marketing survey is extremely poor and people are able to smuggle drugs through our porous borders. Greedy briefcase salesmen take advantage of this and can smuggle and sell drugs to non-licensed pharmacy kiosks and clinics ran by non-professionals,” he said.
The don said the racketeers involved in counterfeit and expired drugs target “fast-moving” brands from multi-national companies as opposed to drugs that treat chronic diseases, which move slowly.
A study of suspicious drugs collected between 2002 and 2010 in 11 African countries and Asia en route to Africa, cited Kenya as one of the 11 African countries selling counterfeit anti-malaria drugs.
Global estimates indicate that trade in counterfeit goods is roughly seven to eight per cent of world trade. Statistics from the Business Action to Stop Counterfeiting and Piracy (Bascap) indicate that counterfeit and pirated products account for $650 billion per year.
By 2015, the global value of counterfeit and pirated products will shoot to $1.77 trillion. Losses in tax revenues amount to $77.5 billion per year, loss of Foreign Direct Investments revenues is $6.25 billion per year and the economies in G20 countries lose 25 million jobs per year.
Regionally, it is estimated that counterfeit products cost East African governments more than $500 million in lost tax revenue annually.
Pharmacy and Poisons Board boss Kipkerich Koskei says patents of some of the drugs sold locally had expired. “Counterfeiting is a deliberate criminal activity to conceal identity of a drug,” he said.
Dr Koskei said drugs destined for neighbouring countries are sometimes diverted into the Kenyan market, but mechanisms have been put in place to deal with such cases.
According to the Impac Taskforce, counterfeit medicines are deliberately and fraudulently mislabelled with respect to identity or source: their quality is unpredictable as they may contain the wrong amount of active ingredients, wrong ingredients or no active ingredients.
In all cases, counterfeit medicines are manufactured in clandestine laboratories with no possibility of control.
The Impac Taskforce says easy money is the main driver for counterfeiters as manufacturing costs are very low if no quality and safety standards are respected.
The taskforce says counterfeiting of medicines affects both branded and generic products.
Records of recent drug seizures in the country show counterfeit and expired drugs were seized in 2009, most of them in Eldoret.
Inspectors from the Pharmacy and Poisons Board said some of the seized products were counterfeit versions of drugs that treat hypertension and diabetes.
The inspectors found some of the illegal, expired and counterfeit drugs in a private pharmacy, some displayed on shelves and meant to be distributed to public health institutions.
According to Mr Peter Adoki, a former regional drug inspector, who intercepted the drugs, most of them were “fast-moving” as they were meant to treat chronic conditions like hypertension and diabetes. Tranquillisers and contraceptive pills were also impounded.
However, in the recent past, a veil of secrecy has been slapped on interceptions of counterfeit medicines due to the damage they may cause to brands of leading pharmaceutical firms.
According to the executive director of the recently formed Anti-Counterfeiting Agency (ACA), Mr Stephen Mallowah, Kenya’s economy loses about Sh70 billion annually to counterfeits.
He said ACA had rolled out a campaign against counterfeit products.
“At the international level, we are actively working with the US Department of Commerce, Commercial Law Development Programme to develop pan-African initiatives that promote commercial exploitation of indigenous intellectual property resources, as well as respect for intellectual property in general,” Mr Mallowah said.
On July 6, 2009, the government seized two containers of counterfeit medicines shipped from Shanghai. The medicines were falsely labelled as having been manufactured in Kenya.
A shipment of counterfeit drugs was originally tracked from China to Nigeria where they were thought to have been contained.