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Fake medicines hampering malaria eradication
Pacific Correspondent Sean Dorney reports on the emergence of fake malaria medication.

Around the world every year no fewer than 200 million people still catch malaria.

In the Asia Pacific progress has been made in tackling the disease, but now that good work has been threatened.

An international investigation has found that criminal syndicates are behind the emergence of fake malaria medication. And the use of these fakes are endangering lives across the region.

Pacific correspondent Sean Dorney.
SEAN DORNEY, REPORTER: Malaria kills more than 1 million people a year, but significant progress has been made in stamping it out in places like Sri Lanka and some island countries in the Pacific. Part of the progress is due to a combination of drugs including this, artemisinin, developed in China from a herbal remedy dating back to the Ming Dynasty.

PROFESSOR RIC PRICE, MENZIES SCHOOL OF HEALTH: It is fantastic drug regime. It works very well. But n the last four -five years there have been reports of emerging artemesinin resistance in the western border of Cambodia. That appears to be spreading. And if that spreads into other areas, the treatments that have made such fantastic progress over the last 10 years will begin to wane and we'll face, potentially, a large increase of malaria again.

SEAN DORNEY: The growing resistance that's endangering this fight against malaria is partly due to a man made challenge.

RIC PRICE: The major problem in South East Asia particularly is the manufacture of fake anti malarial drugs which are a horrendous indictment on human greed. These are tablets which, if taken by a child with malaria, are potentially a death sentence.

SEAN DORNEY: A major investigation by health specialists into the issue concluded that the counterfeit anti malaria drugs have led to deaths, reduced confidence in the proper drugs, large economic losses for legitimate manufacturers, and concerns about growing artemisinin resistance.

The penetration of these fake anti malarials is staggering.

RIC PRICE: Maybe 20 to 60 per cent of the drugs sold across the counter in Asia, in many parts, are actually fake.

SEAN DORNEY: Analysis of the fake drugs has shown that some even contain carcinogenic compounds, traces of ecstasy and one even a mite nymph.

PROFESSOR MAXINE WHITTAKER, AUSTRALIAN CENTRE FOR INTERNATIONAL AND TROPICAL HEALTH: Throughout the pacific and in Papua New Guinea you have little trade stores and they're the only people who sell anything in some of the villages. But even in the capitals, in Port Moresby, you'll find trade stores and often they sell a whole range of things, from CDs, USBs, anti malarials. And again often they may be linked or they may be purchasing from these counterfeit drug suppliers.

SEAN DORNEY: And government health departments strapped for funds are particularly vulnerable.

MAXINE WHITTAKER: Many of these companies that produce the counterfeit drugs actually do have representatives who, you know come and talk to the ministry of health. They put up for tenders when the country's ministry is tendering for drugs and they often come in with a lower price. But the countries themselves can't test the quality of the drugs.

SEAN DORNEY: And to fool what tests are carried out, some of the manufacturers put minute quantities of artemisinin in their fake tablets.

RIC PRICE: The artemisinin derivatives are particularly targeted by the fake drug industry. People are testing drug quality at source by looking for the active ingredient in the drug. The fake companies are ahead of the game because they're putting just a little bit of artemisinin in there so that these tests for minor drug quantities come up positive in the fake drugs look ok and they pass the test.

SEAN DORNEY: The factories producing the fake anti malarial drugs are spreading.

RIC PRICE: Several in China, New Dehli in India and also from Nigeria. And so Interpol, coming together with epidemiologists and even forensic experts, are trying to monitor this.

SEAN DORNEY: The authorities in China have shut down some of the illegal factories there.

Professor Whittaker says that if the trade is not broken, recent successes in the battle against malaria could be jeopardised.

MAXINE WHITTAKER: Because of that issue of immunity goes down if malaria comes back, we're going to have a massive problem that we do need people to pay attention to. Malaria in the Asia Pacific area and counterfeit drugs is one of the threats to being able to get rid of something that's been around a long time, but counterfeit drugs could quickly be the sand under our feet from an elimination agenda.
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