Falsified Medical Products, An Undiagnosed Public Health Concern

By: Shail Patel

Very few fields of academia impose tangible change and documentable progress within our lifetimes. Research and discoveries remain limited to theoretical realms, incomprehensible and un-experienceable to the everyday citizen. Countering such stagnation, however, is clinical medicine. Medicine remains a scientific outlet rich with applicable findings and novel discoveries. Treatments and medications progress through developmental stages, ultimately saving lives and promoting public health. Yet still, there exists a flaw within this argument: practical extent. The successes of modern medicine are limited in nature and not readily accessible to the global south, primarily due to falsified medicine. 

Developed nations possess the resources and legislative framework to ensure quality medical treatment and effective translation from product manufacturing to patients. On the other hand, developing nations have inconsistent judicial bodies with little regulation for healthcare and affiliated medical products. Such conditions foster environments of negligence and exploitation. Where accessible healthcare is already scarce, poor governmental oversight results in falsified medical resources. Common medications are substandard, frequently involving cornstarch or sugar modifications. Equipment from local markets is dysfunctional or entirely fraudulent. An illicit commodity, falsified medical products wreak havoc on unknowing citizens and challenge community safety. 

Common in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, falsified medical products thrive in unhygienic, informal, and incompetent settings. Situations involve poor living conditions and institutional obstacles to medical treatment, promoting a lucrative market for falsified goods. Helpless by unregulated medical contraband operations, citizens lack their fundamental rights to life. Local supply chains exploit public naivety and demand to advance their agendas and maximize profits. Distributed and manufactured in covert factories, the deep-rooted and urgent impacts of falsified medical products, therefore, emphasize an immediate need for multilateral awareness and intervention. 

Exploring specific encounters with substandard medical products, take for instance, Richard Morrow’s experiences in East Africa. Specializing in international health and studying at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Morrow traveled to the African tropics in search of complex epidemiological models. Having lost his antimalarial medicine, the professor searched a local pharmacy for chloroquine and continued on with his work.

Returning to the United States, however, Dr. Morrow suffered from severe flu-like symptoms, including fever, chills, and a headache. Prompting a cerebral malarial coma, Dr. Morrow’s over-the-counter medicine had unknowingly been acetaminophen, more commonly known as Tylenol. While Dr. Morrow barely survived, situations like his are unfortunately not uncommon. The World Health Organization identifies 1 in 10 medical products as falsified or substandard. Defined as having “no active ingredient, the wrong active ingredient, or the wrong amount of the correct active ingredient,” fraudulent medications threaten community safety and establish a troubling paradox: medicine does more harm than good. Patients, especially in underdeveloped and underserved communities, suffer potential conditions, life-threatening reactions, or even death at the hands of products purported to be extending or saving their lives. Worse yet, given the deteriorating nature of the patient’s health, it is likely that the falsified medical product will not count as a contributing factor to the decline. 

Furthermore, evaluating the socioeconomic implications of falsified medical products reveals several areas of concern. Foremost is the diminishing credibility of pharmaceuticals. Albeit not an issue in developing nations, individuals in impoverished regions grow skeptical of the drugs and medicines meant to alleviate their symptoms. Local companies whose products’ reputations are compromised by counterfeit products face increased difficulty in rolling out new medications and therapies. Even on a local scale, falsified drugs limit productivity and strain an already challenged healthcare system. In light of increased complications, individuals do not interact with the economy, instead seeking alternate means of treatment. 

This prompts the question of why further global resources are not allocated to the issue? While a loss of income and poverty are affiliated with the issue, a holistic understanding of these implications reveals an explanation as to why international assistance remains limited. Localized economic ripples result from poor judicial systems and waning legislative enforcement. Modern nations take little interest in the political shortcomings of underserved regions. Even regarding trade, developed economies remain buffered and almost always emerge victorious as illegal products disperse internationally. 

Thus, why should advanced nations address falsified medical products? The answer lies in global health. From a healthcare perspective, falsified medical products contribute to epidemics of drug-resistant infections. Specifically, the speed by which products are distributed complicates the issue as, by the time chemical or functional anomalies emerge, the products have already been implemented, making conservation almost impossible. Increased viral prevalence also stems from falsified products since substandard medications provide little or no immune protection. Eventually, such infections transcend their points of origin and even infiltrate developed countries. 

Therefore, in an increasingly interconnected society, falsified medical products disrupt the interests of global health. In order to prevent another global pandemic, states must be aware of and take an interest in how diseases are spreading in other states: borders do not block viruses. Humanity progresses as a whole; human rights deprivations have international complications. Maintaining the right to life, regardless of borders or political status, encourages cooperation in revising global healthcare. 

Reform, then, involves addressing the illicit trafficking of falsified medical products, consisting of physical trade routes and online selling components. Manufacturing more secure firewalls on the internet and adamant border control are necessities for solving the issue. Legislative and judicial breaches are also commonly exploited aspects of the illegal process. Therefore, frameworks within individual nations and international regulations must be enhanced. Likewise, universal quality endurance methods and standards limit possible deviations. While political sovereignty is important, compromises must be made for an effective combined effort, whether through the formation of a group or planned advances in each country.

Overall, a complete understanding of the implications and interventions involved with falsified medical products signifies the need for change. Medicine represents hope and prosperity, values currently in immediate jeopardy. Modern initiatives remain subjective and rely upon national honesty and enforcement. In maintaining healthcare as a field of tangible change, nations must set aside their economic egos and cooperate in rural health initiatives. With global sanctity at stake, only time will tell if humanity rallies in support of the underprivileged or is ignorant at the expense of all. 

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