After an alarming discovery that is being described as the difference between life and death, health officials are alerting the population about fake malaria medication that is being sold in drug stores.
The drugs were being passed off as Mefloquine and Artesunate, two of the most popular malaria treatment drugs in Cambodia. Tests conducted by three separate laboratories showed the drugs did not contain any medication and were placebos.
“They do not have the chemicals in it that they are supposed to have and the public is deceived,” Bill Pigott, head of the World Health Organization office in Cambodia, said Friday.
Although there are several other kinds of malaria drugs on the market, the fake Mefloquine and Artesunate are among the cheapest and therefore are popular.
Several drug stores near Olympic Market had the fake Mefloquine and Artesunate in stock on Sunday. A few had other malaria treatment drugs, but they were more expensive than the fake brands.
Health officials say genuine mefloquine and artesunate are difficult to find in Cambodia because the drugs are too expensive for most people to buy, so the medications are re-exported to countries that can afford them.
The fake Mefloquine costs seven cents per tablet, while the real drug costs $1. The fake Artesunate costs 1,000 riel for a package of 12 tablets, and the real ones costs at least 3,500 riel.
Malaria is one of the major causes of death among the adult population in Cambodia. It is estimated that 7.05 per 1,000 people in Cambodia have malaria, and the disease causes 5,000 deaths per year, according to a February 1999 report by the Ministry of Health.
After the discovery last week Dr Chea Chay, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Health, organized a meeting on Friday to discuss what action should be taken.
The Ministry of Health, WHO, the National Malaria Center and the European Commission’s malaria control program are working together to resolve the situation.
Starting today, health officials will publicize the existence of the fake drugs thorough the media, and the National Malaria Center will establish a drug quality surveillance system.
Malaria drug samples will be collected regularly and sent for analysis to independent laboratories. The results of the tests will be made public.
Malaria drugs of good quality will be made available in sealed packages, and certain measures will be taken to prevent the copying of the packages. Health officials, WHO and the European Commission are also working on prepackaged malaria pills that already come in the correct dosage.
Ministry of Health officials are still discussing how the fake drugs will be destroyed. They are also planning to investigate where the drugs came from.
“There are real criminals behind this,” said Jan Rozendaal, a malaria adviser for the European Commission’s malaria control program in Cambodia. “People are dying daily because of this.”
Rozendaal discovered the products were fakes after he went to drug stores recently to see what kinds of malaria drugs were available on the market.
Because the products were so cheap, Rozendaal decided to have the products tested to see how strong they were.
The packaging for the fake Mefloquine claims the products are made by the Australian company Gateway Pharmaceuticals and even bears the company’s logo.
Gateway is a legitimate company that does manufacture Mefloquine, but it sells its product under the brand name Meflam.
The company and another independent Australian laboratory tested the fake Mefloquine and confirmed the drugs were placebos, according to a letter dated Oct 12 by John Brennan, the chief analytical chemist for Gateway.
Gateway told Rozendaal that it is investigating where the fake Mefloquine came from and may seek legal action against the producers.
Fake Artesunate drugs had been discovered several years ago and the producers of the genuine product were notified.
After that realization, the Chinese manufacturer of the real Artesunate drug started putting a hologram on their product to distinguish between the effective drug and the fake one.
Several days ago, the European Commission discovered that the fake Artesunate now also has a hologram, making it difficult to distinguish between the real one and the placebo.
(Additional reporting by Sokhan Serey Vethia)