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How a text message is fighting counterfeit medicines in Kenya

Alberta returned home from a successful business trip a week ago.

She dismissed the daily headaches four days later and muscle pains as fatigue from the long working days.On the fifth day, worry became anxiety when the fever set in.The night chills further worried her that she sent her brother to buy anti-malarial medicines from the pharmacy next to her house.

The fever persisted. It came fast, robbing her of strength to attend work for another week.The sickness showed no sign of shifting. No hint of recovery. It wasn’t until a co-worker mentioned that a malaria infection should have cleared on the fifth day of treatment.

She sought a second opinion at the government health facility when she grew weaker. Preliminary tests showed that she had developed kidney failure from ingesting lead metal components from the counterfeit anti-malarial medicines she had been taking.

Today Alberta has to undergo dialysis twice a week to manage her kidneys. Henceforth, every action she took was precise and purposeful. She only buys drugs from registered pharmacies and she has started an awareness campaign among friends and family to ensure they take genuine medicines.

Counterfeit drugs changed her life forever. What are counterfeit medicines?

Simply speaking, counterfeit drugs are fake medicines.

A 2017 World Health Organisation study on the public health impact of substandard and falsified medicines observed that any product containing a dangerous contaminant, including very high levels of the expected active pharmaceutical ingredient, will pose an immediate hazard to the individual taking it.

Dr Orangi Gavin, a clinical pharmacist, notes that most of counterfeited medicines are either fast moving or high value medicines like painkillers, antibiotics or anti-malarias.

Photo by Christina Victoria Craft on Unsplash

Other medicines that are normally faked include;

· Drugs for erectile dysfunction like Viagra and Cialis
· Antibiotics.
· Drugs for chronic illness like hypertension , diabetes and psychiatric drugs
· Cancer drugs
· Antiretrovirals for HIV/AIDS
· Pain killers and weight loss medications

Fake drugs are either contaminated or they contain the wrong or no active ingredient. The active ingredient makes the medicine effective for the illness or condition it is intended to treat. They can also have the right active ingredient but with the wrong dosage.

Dr Orangi Gavin, Clinical pharmacist

Dr Orangi cites the effects of using counterfeit drugs; “Patients may suffer a longer bout of disease, if their condition goes untreated because the “medicine” they take contains no active pharmaceutical ingredient,” read excerpts of the paper. In some cases, death may occur, the paper noted.

According to Dr Orangi, taking fake drugs increases the chances of antimicrobial resistance and drug-resistant infections. “It also leads to loss of confidence in health care professionals and health systems because treatment takes longer or the illness worsens,” he added.

An increased out-of-pocket and health system spending on health care is another economic loss usually incurred by patients and their families.

But how can you identify a fake drug?

Well, sadly it is becoming increasingly difficult to identify a falsified medicine from a genuine one.

“There is more sophistication in faking the drugs that the criminals have now mastered the art and science of making them look as close as possible to the real medicine,” Dr Orangi  said adding that in some cases you can pick a change in the colour and taste of the drug if you have taken it before, he added.

As a safety measure, some pharmaceutical companies have also put in place a ‘scratch card’ provision that you can scratch to reveal a code you can use to verify with the manufacturer.

How do you protect yourself from consuming counterfeit medicines?

The following measures should be observed when you suspect that you have fake drugs;

· Do not consume the medicine anymore
· Keep the samples and evidence of payment so that that can be used as evidence.
· Contact the Pharmacy and Poisons Board, Kenya
· Inform the Police

The Pharmacy and Poisons Board of Kenya’s mandate is to regulates the manufacture and sale of drugs.Other roles include conducting a post-market surveillance system that includes routine quality surveys, where samples of different medicine and medical devices categories are collected from different levels of pharmaceutical outlets and health facilities.

The samples are subjected to laboratory analysis to check the quality of the product. This is done based on the product specifications that were applied during registration of the individual products. Once the counterfeit products are identified, the PPB orders a recall of all the impacted batches.


Guarding against fake medicines is also about personal responsibility. How so?

Buy your medicines from a. registered pharmacy premises. Check the premises and practitioners licenses before you purchase any medicine. Inform the authorities in case they suspect the medicines they have bought could be counterfeit.

You can also check whether the pharmacy is legit through a free mobile phone SMS code 21031 that enables any customer to ascertain the identity by name and location of legitimate pharmacists who are registered by the PPB.

All registered pharmacists are expected and required to display their registration details noticeably to enable you to ascertain legitimate pharmacists and registered pharmacies and chemists countrywide.

Do you suspect a drug has been falsely labeled/falsified/counterfeit (SFFCs), you can report it to the Pharmacy at Poisons Board using: or call using the hotline 070247596.


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