American scientists have developed tests that determine whether medications are fake.
Counterfeit medications are a lucrative and popular business. The World Health Organization estimates that 10 to 30% of drugs sold in developing countries are fake, reports Voice of America.
“It appears that a lot of counterfeit drugs are coming out of Southeast Asia and Northern Africa,” says Toni Barstis, a chemist at Saint Mary’s College in Indiana, who helped develop chemical tests on counterfeit drugs. “This is much more of a problem in developing countries because of a lack of a strong regulatory system. This could vary from people in the backyard making counterfeit drugs to a more organized ring.”
Barstis’ team first developed a test that determines whether the pain and fever medication Panadol — also known by its brand name, Tylenol — with its active ingredient, acetaminophen, is present in a pill. Health issues have been documented in India, Kenya, Nigeria, Vietnam, and Panama, reports IANS Live. Deaths occur when people unknowingly take fake antibiotics and anti-malaria drugs that lack the active ingredient to combat those diseases.
Fake brand-name acetaminophen medications are the tip of the iceberg in a wider problem of counterfeit drugs sold in developing countries. Barstis says:
Panadol has long been among the most common, standard pain-relieving drugs counterfeited around the world. But the problem has taken on a troubling new dimension. In the past, you could just look at the labeling and packaging and know if it was counterfeit. Now, they do such a good job with the package design it’s hard to determine whether it’s a package of the genuine medicine or a fake that contains no acetaminophen or even ingredients that may be harmful.
Barstis’ test consists of chemically treated paper the size of a business card. A tester rubs a pill on the paper and dips it in water. Any color changes on the paper indicate suspicious ingredients.
“The whole thing takes less than five minutes. We had children from 5 [years old] through adults of 90-plus conduct this test. And those darn kids — they performed some races. The record for speed with these tests stands at 1 minute 38 seconds,” Barstis said.
Barstis now is developing similar paper tests for other popular medicines. She wants to make the tests widely available.
“We’ve talked about starting a nonprofit [organization]. We’ve talked about working with non-governmental organizations. We purposely want an inexpensive, low technology device. We’re looking for something really cheap — under a quarter [i.e., 25 cents] for sure — so that people can use them,” Barstis says.
Source: “New Tests Rapidly Identify Counterfeit Medications,” Voice of America, 8/21/12
Source: “Simple test detects fake drug in minutes,” IANS Live, 8/21/12
Image by Pollo.
Dale McGeehon has been a journalist and editor for more than 25 years, covering chemical regulation and testing for Pesticides and Toxic Chemical News and innovations in material sciences for the National Technology Transfer Center. His writing credits include Omni and College Park magazines and The New York Times.