Poor people likely to buy fake drugs, reveals survey

Thursday February 11 2016

Fake Panadol Extra drugs being destroyed in Nairobi in 2013.  PHOTO | ANTHONY OMUYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Fake Panadol Extra drugs being destroyed in Nairobi in 2013. PHOTO | ANTHONY OMUYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Researchers on the use of counterfeit drugs in Kenya have made a startling discovery: Poor people are more likely to be conned at the counter than the wealthy.

Doctors at Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital, Eldoret last week said the results indicated that counterfeiters were taking advantage of patients’ ignorance.

The researchers have been getting sample drugs through secret shoppers in different towns. They buy medicine from chemists and shops randomly and take them for sampling.

“At times, pharmacists choose what drugs to sell, depending on how a customer is dressed,” Dr Mercy Maina, a pharmacist at the hospital said.

 “If you have an expensive outfit, you may get genuine drugs, but that is not the case if you are in rags.”

This could have far-reaching health implications on poor patients who might not have the financial ability to deal with the effects of poisoning and bad medication.

The testing is done using a gadget developed in association with American researchers.

“The Paper Analytical Device works as a mini lab,” said Sonak Pastakia, a visiting professor from Purdue University, currently based at the hospital.


In the last four years, the hospital has come up with a “Drawer of Shame”, where drugs which look suspicious because they are either fake of poor quality are stored.

The kit takes only five minutes to test the chemicals in the drugs.

“The sample of the drug is applied at a marked place in the device. It is then dipped in water vertically while holding it straight to allow water to rise into the strip. After five minutes, you will notice a pink colour on one side of PAD, meaning the colour reaction is over,” Ms Maina said. 

Every card contains 12 strips which react with a drug to create a colour bar code that gives information about the chemical content of the medicine.

These colours are read against a set standard of expected outcomes, thus tell if a drug is genuine.

“If, for example, you expected to get green at the end of the exercise but you get yellow, definitely there is a problem with the drug,” she said.

“The biggest challenge after spotting a counterfeited drug is tracing the pharmacy as some are not registered.”

In recent times, doctors and health specialists have raised the alarm over the proliferation of counterfeit drugs in the market.


At the highest risk are patients on anti-malaria medication, those on antibiotics and women using family planning pills.

Painkillers have also become attractive to counterfeiters, possibly because of their common use.

Dr Niko Gichana, the pharmacist in charge of Port Reitz District Hospital, Mombasa, last week told the Nation that most fake drugs were dispensed at unregistered chemists and general supplies shops.

“Malaria drugs like Metakelfin, antibiotics such as Amoxicillin and Azithromycin, painkillers like Diclofenac and Paracetamol and emergency contraceptives like Postinor-2 are the most counterfeited drugs,” he said.

Most of those who fall victim to these drugs are patients who are unaware of how original medicine looks like. Others are patients who self-medicate.

“Most fake drugs come in two types. There are those which look like the original, work like the original but are not the original. Then there are those that are of poor quality and do not provide the required treatment,” he said. 

He added that the latter were very dangerous as they could lead to heart complications, aggravate sickness or even cause death.

“Most people, including educated ones have this notion that whenever they have a fever, it is malaria and buy malaria drugs even when they have not been tested. Some of these drugs are made of chalk and water or even poisonous substances,” he said.

Dr Gichana said bogus drugs were bought by unsuspecting Kenyans due to poor enforcement of laws governing their supply and usage.

He advised patients to buy medicines from registered chemists which have a green cross sign painted on them.

The business, however, remains a booming affair to cartels who have taken advantage of lax regulation to make a killing, literally.

Nearly five years ago, counterfeit medicines accounted for approximately Sh9 billion in annual sales, according to Kenya Association of Pharmaceuticals.

Counterfeit goods

A 2015 report by the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, the Judiciary and other agencies showed that Kenya was ranked among the largest markets for counterfeit goods from India and China.

Estimates showed that more than 30 per cent of the total medicines sold in Kenya were fake.

However, the Pharmacy and Poisons Board disputed these claims, insisting they were not backed by evidence and “could spark unnecessary public alarm”.

The Board registrar, Mr Kipkerich Koskei, said although counterfeit and substandard drugs may be in the local market, “their percentage had been grossly exaggerated”.

Reported by Eunice Kilonzo, Everlyne Situma and Rebecca Okwany.