A red-faced, glowering devil looks down on a pharmacist with small black horns sprouting from her temples.
The painting by Cambodian artist Hen Sophal could classify as surrealist if it did not have such an obvious message: Beware of counterfeit drugs and the unscrupulous pharmacies that sell them.
The painting is part of “Pharmacide Arts,” a traveling exhibition of works by 34 Cambodian and regional artists on the dangers of fake medicine, funded by the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, the Institut Francais and the German cultural center, Meta House.
“It is indeed important that decision-makers and citizens are well informed about the dangers of counterfeit medicine and low-quality medicine,” said Laurence Bernardi, first secretary at the French Embassy in Phnom Penh.
“Such an exhibition is also a way to explain to the public behaviors which could improve the situation, in particular, the importance to buy medicine in registered pharmacies.”
The exhibition opens at Meta House and the Institut Francais tonight and includes 11 artworks by Cambodian artists, plus works by artists from Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. The exhibition will travel to each of the countries represented, as well as to France.
Officials from the Ministry of Health have said that the prevalence of fake medicines in the country has declined significantly in recent years due to nationwide inspections and efforts to shut down illegal pharmacies.
In March, ministry Secretary of State Chou Yin Sim said illegal pharmacies in Cambodia had been completely eradicated and that counterfeit medicines represented only 0.2 percent of all the drugs on the market, though medical experts questioned that claim.
“The main thing is that the government has made it a priority to get rid of fake drugs,” said Steven Bjorge, malaria team leader at the World Health Organization in Phnom Penh, adding that fake anti-malaria drugs, once a massive problem, seem to have been largely wiped out.
“There’s a carrot and a stick approach. The anti-economic crime police explain that these are bad drugs. You tell the retailers what are the good ones and bad ones and usually, they respond because they don’t want to kill their clients—they want repeat customers,” Dr. Bjorge said.
Still, health professionals insist that problems with counterfeit drugs still remain.
“The government has cracked down on illegal, unlicensed pharmacies,” said Sin Somony, executive director of MediCam, an umbrella group of health NGOs. “However, [addressing] fake medicine requires a combination of many more interventions. I think it’s a country, regional and global problem.”
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