Thursday, December 20, 2012

Fake Malaria Drugs: Driving Resistance and Killing Patients

Anopheles mosquito (the mosquito that carries
malaria) taking a meal
Here is a disturbing NPR report on fake malaria drugs. The article highlights the issue of counterfeit malaria drug use and how this has a negative impact on patients and drives drug resistance.

Malaria, a parasitic disease carried by mosquitoes that destroys red blood cells, is a major cause of worldwide morbidity and mortality (killing over 600,000 people per year).

There is a criminal industry focused on producing fake malaria drugs. As malaria can be deadly (and people can die quickly), this industry directly compromises patients' lives. Some of these false drugs actually contain low levels of active anti-malarial compounds-too low to cure the infection but high enough to allow the parasite to develop drug resistance.

The NPR article links to a study by Newton and colleagues published in 2008. In this study they examined 391 samples of the anti-malaria drug artesunate collected in Southeast Asia and found that approximately 50% contained no or very small levels of this compound. Some of the compounds that were detected were potentially dangerous: these included a carcinogen and raw material for the street drug 'ecstacy.'

This is a problem that extends beyond malaria drugs: as I previously noted, up to 50% of medications in some countries for life-threatening diseases may be fake. A major issue is our poor understanding of the scope of this problem.

The problem of malarial drug resistance is a major one: we only have a few anti-malarial drugs as it stands. If resistance to these compounds becomes more widespread than more patients will die. We need to preserve the drugs we have left, including combating such diabolical practices as creating fake or profoundly substandard anti-malarial medicines.

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