Counterfeit Drugs: Dangerous Medicine

Real and counterfeit Tamiflu
The US Food and Drug Administration, via Flickr

Do you trust your medicine? Ryan Geertsma and Liz Waid look at the amazing problem of fake, counterfeit drugs.

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Voice 1 

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Ryan Geertsma.

Voice 2 

And I’m Liz Waid. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand - no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1 

A car is driving quickly down the road in Nigeria. Another car is chasing it. A person in the second car pulls out a gun. Dr. Dora Akunyili is in the first car. She told the story of this shooting to the BBC.

Voice 3 

“My car was shot from behind on 26 December, 2003. The bullet went through my cloth headscarf. It passed through the glass windscreen of the car, leaving my hair burnt.”

Voice 2 

Dr. Akunyili was the director general of Nigeria's National Agency for Drug and Food Administration. This organization works to make sure that the food and medicine in Nigeria is safe. The people who shot at Dr. Akunyili make and sell counterfeit medicine. Akunyili was working to stop their business in counterfeit drugs.

Voice 1 

Counterfeit, or false, drugs do not come from real drug companies. They are illegal copies of real medicines. They look like real drugs. But they do not heal people. In fact, they may make people more sick. But it is difficult to judge a false drug from a real one. So why are these drugs so dangerous? Today’s Spotlight is on the problem of counterfeit drugs.

Voice 2 

Some experts say that in Nigeria, up to half of the medicine is not real. Dr. Akunyili saw that this was a huge problem for her country. But she also had a personal reason to fight against these counterfeit drugs. Her younger sister suffered from diabetes. She had to take medicine every day. But Akunyili’s sister took some counterfeit medicine. She became very sick and died. Dr. Akunyili told the BBC:

Voice 3 

“Counterfeit drugs are murder. It is the highest form of terrorism against public health because it kills a mass amount of people."

Voice 1 

Counterfeit drugs contain the wrong substances. Many counterfeit drugs are filled with things that do not cost a lot of money, like flour for making bread. Even worse, counterfeit drugs may contain harmful things like brick dust, paint, or even poison.

Voice 2 

Sometimes counterfeit drugs do have medicine in them. They may contain a completely wrong kind of medicine. Some counterfeit drugs contain the right medicine. But the amount of medicine is not correct. The drugs may have too little or too much medicine.

Voice 1 

In the worst cases, counterfeit drugs can lead to death. Experts say that more than 100,000 people die every year from false drugs. This problem is very large. There are examples from all over the world. Eighty-four children in Nigeria died from counterfeit teething medicine. Counterfeit cancer drugs affected hundreds of women in the United States. In Panama, 200 people died from poison in a false drug.

Voice 2 

There are no international laws governing medicine. So it is difficult for governments to stop people from selling counterfeit drugs. It is difficult to even discover who is selling them. This is especially true when people buy drugs over the internet. Medicine is often sold at low prices on internet websites. People can order it without having to go to a doctor. But the drugs may not be real.

Voice 1 

At first it is difficult to understand why people sell counterfeit drugs. Why would anyone want to harm sick people? But people can make a lot of money producing and selling counterfeit drugs. It is similar to the illegal drug trade. And in some ways it is easier to sell counterfeit medication than illegal drugs.

Voice 2 

Drug companies are trying to stop people who produce counterfeit drugs. They put particular symbols on the real drug packages. When people see these symbols they can know that the drugs are real. But this does not always stop people from making counterfeit drugs. Some counterfeiters put symbols on false packages too! Stephane Proux works at the Shoklo Malaria Research Unit in Mae Sot, Thailand. He has been studying malaria medication there for ten years. Proux told NPR:

Voice 4 

“In the early days, it was easy to judge the false drugs from true. The symbols on the package of bad drugs were really badly done and very rough. You could see straight away that it was not real.”

Voice 1 

However this changed in 2004. Since then the counterfeiters have improved. They now make very good symbols. It is very difficult to know which drugs are real, and which are counterfeit.

Voice 2 

People in some countries are finding modern ways to help people buy real drugs. In India a company named Pharmasecure has one solution. They print codes of numbers and letters on real drugs. When people buy medicine, they look at the code. They use their mobile phone to text this code to Pharmasecure. Then Pharmasecure sends a text message back. This tells them if the medicine is real and safe to take.

Voice 1 

People have also started using a similar texting system in Nigeria. Dr. Dora Akunyili finished her term with the Food and Drug Administration in 2010. However, she made a big difference.  She closed down markets where people sell illegal medicines. And the number of counterfeit drugs in Nigeria has decreased. Dr. Akunyili continues to educate people around the world about counterfeit drugs.

Voice 2 

Interpol, the International Police Agency, is also joining the work to stop counterfeit drugs. They are trying to find the people who make and sell counterfeit drugs. They are working with companies that make real medicine. Together, they hope to decrease the amount of counterfeit drugs. And they hope to teach people more about this problem.

Voice 1 

Other groups are also working to educate people about counterfeit drugs. The World Health Professions Alliance provides education for medical workers and individuals. They tell people how to avoid counterfeit drugs. We close today’s program with their ideas:

Voice 5

“Look carefully for anything about medicines that is unusual or different. Watch for the effect of the medicine. If treatment fails, or has an unexpected effect, it may be counterfeit. Find out as much information as possible about the product. Look at its packaging, what substances are in it and how to use it. Where did you buy the product? Find out whether it was purchased from a known and dependable place.”

Voice 2 

The writer and producer of this program was Rena Dam. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at This program is called, ‘Counterfeit Drugs: Dangerous Medicine.’

Voice 1 

You can also leave your comments on our website. Or you can email us at You can also find us on Facebook - just search for spotlightradio. We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

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In your country, is it difficult or easy to get the medications you need? Can everyone get medicine they need?


Avatar Spotlight
said on August 07, 2013

Counterfeit drug..mmmm I didn´t know   that kind of illegal business.  It dangereous for people must have more   control for the   authorities and to inform constantly to people about it.

Thanks sptlg

Avatar Spotlight
said on August 07, 2013

For business benefit,they have been made many kind of counterfeit things such as food,medicine,cosmetic,household good without investing many money.It not only affects real product business man’s prestige but only harms people;s healthy.
I think government need to have strict solution to prevent this action.

Avatar Spotlight
said on August 08, 2013

In the life each of us has joys and sadnesses. When we are well we are happy. When we are ill we are sad. Each sickness has its effective treatments. We wish to get effective treatments. When we are healed we get joy. When we are not healed we are sad. We are responsible to the life and everyone. We bring joys to everyone. The life has sadnesses. We look for things more beautiful and better beyond sadnesses. We build for true values. In the life we have joys many times. When we experience sadnesses we hope for more beautiful, better things. Sadnesses remind us to try to always live our lives well.

Avatar Spotlight
said on September 16, 2014

In my country, amount of fake medicines had been sold. They almost come from China.

Avatar Spotlight
said on September 17, 2014

I can’t believe that counterfeit medicine can exist, in fact they appear all over the world and they give many bad affected to people, especially to people who are sick and poor. I think counterfeiters are like furious lions, they drink blood of innocent persons who are suffering from sickness. I do not know why government do not give a enough strong law to destroy all counterfeit companies.

Avatar Spotlight
Mss Flamboyant
said on September 20, 2014

Well first of all I really need to kick off with the point that it is so dangerous, not only does it affect health, but also does it harm society. Another point which I could say is that there are many counterfeit drugs over the world. In some undeveloped countries and developing countries where it is difficult to find authentic medicine. Furthermore it is worst thing which people do not have chance to buy authentic medicine, so they can not distinguish which is fake or genuine.

Avatar Spotlight
said on September 21, 2014

Making and selling the counterfeit drugs represents the terrible crime against humanity because these products not only harm people’s health but even can cause their death. Evidently, this illegal production creates the significant source of enormous financial profit, that is why the batement of trade with fake drugs is not easy or simple at all. There more companies as Pharmasecure in India are needed, the solution with texting systém appears to be helpful very much. I suppose, the largest problém consists in difficulty to distinguish between real and fake drugs, the people mainly in undeveloped countries should be told, educated about the big danger of using wrong, fake medical products.
Thanks Spotlight for interesting program!

Avatar Spotlight
said on September 04, 2019

I don’t know if we are buying counterfeit drugs in Brazil. Probably there are a lot of counterfeit drugs being sold freely because our government isn’t much awake for the population health and officials don’t care about it.

Severino Ramos da Silva's avatar
Severino Ramos da Silva
said on September 06, 2019

From .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) (Severino Ramos)
To spotlight program
Subject to answer the questions below
Date Friday 06, September 2019
São Paulo city SP Brazil

Dear Rena Dam, Liz Waid, and Ryan Geertsma

Thank you for producing more one great article for us Brazilian people and other people around the World.
Question 1 - In your country, is it difficult or easy to get the medications you need?
Answer 1 - Yes, it is. If we need an aspirin tablet, we can buy it easily at the the pharmacy.
However, if we need a packge of antibiotic or other medicine,  we need to get a Doctor prescrition to buy it.
Question 2 - Can everyone get medicine they need?
Answer 2 - No, they can. They need a Doctor prescrition to get it at the pharmacy.
Your regards,
God bless you
Severino Ramos

Avatar Spotlight
Martin Guzman
said on September 16, 2019

I don’t know if we are buying counterfeit or pirated medicines in Ecuador. There are probably many medicines
Counterfeit that are sold freely because our government is not very awake for the health of the population and officials do not care about our health as citizens.

No sé si estamos comprando medicamentos falsificados o piratas en Ecuador. Probablemente hay muchas medicinas
falsificadas que se venden libremente porque nuestro gobierno no está muy despierto para la salud de la población y a los funcionarios no les importa nuestra salud como ciudadanos.