Fake malaria drugs “put millions in Africa at risk”: study

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Fake antimalarial drugs are putting millions of lives in Africa at risk from malaria, one of the continent's biggest killers, scientists have warned.

The authors of a new report said there has been a dramatic rise in poor-quality and counterfeit antimalarials sold in Africa, some of which has been traced to China, threatening gains made in fighting malaria. 

The dodgy antimalarials could harm patients and lead to drug resistance among malaria parasites, according to the study published in the Malaria Journal, and funded by the UK's Wellcome Trust.

More from GlobalPost: Malaria deaths fall worldwide

Malaria killed 655,000 people in 2010, many of them African children, the World Health Organization said. Pregnant women are also at high risk from the mosquito-borne disease.

Researchers studied fake and poor-quality antimalarial found on sale in 11 African countries between 2002 and 2010.  

The scientists found that some of the fake tablets contained pharmaceutical ingredients that might initially alleviate the symptoms of malaria, but fail to cure it. Certain ingredients could have serious side effects on patients, especially if taken in combination with other drugs, such as antiretrovirals to treat HIV/AIDS.

Small amounts of artemisinin, one of the key drugs used to treat malaria, are added to fake tablets in order to pass authenticity tests. The small amount is not enough to get rid of malaria parasites in the body, but could lead to the parasites building up drug resistance. 

The researchers said that pollen found in some of the boxes of tablets showed the counterfeit medicines had originated in eastern Asia.

According to a statement by the Wellcome Trust:

Indeed, in 2001, police in Guangzhou, China, arrested Nigerian and Chinese men for production of counterfeits of the antimalarial halofantrine. No evidence of counterfeit pharmaceutical production in Africa was found in the pollen analysis; however, production facilities for packaging materials for counterfeit antimalarials have been seized in Nigeria.

More from GlobalPost: New malaria vaccine halves risk of infection

The study was conducted by researchers from the Wellcome Trust-Mahosot Hospital-Oxford University Tropical Medicine Research Collaboration.

Lead researcher Dr. Paul Newton said that fake antimalarials encourage drug resistance, which could have profound consequences in Africa.

"The enormous investment in the development, evaluation and deployment of antimalarials is wasted if the medicines that patients actually take are, due to criminality or carelessness, of poor quality and do not cure," he said.

"Failure to take action will put at risk the lives of millions of people, particularly children and pregnant women."

The scientists called for increased investment in national medicine regulatory authorities in Africa to safeguard the quality of antimalarials.

Newton called the fake medicines "murderous," and said it is extremely difficult to tell the difference between genuine and fake. While some fake medicine packages might have spelling errors, other counterfeits are near impossible to tell with the naked eye.

More from GlobalPost: U.S. Government spending on malaria

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.