Posted by: Chris Maloney | September 9, 2013

Drugs and Supplements: Will Counterfeit Pills Kill You?

Counterfeit clothes

Counterfeit clothes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the more disturbing sides of modern technology is a sudden distancing between the buyer and the supplier.  With many products this can be annoying and frustrating, as we end up buying something that doesn’t work or isn’t what was advertised.  But with medications and supplements, the same annoying lack of quality control can be lethal.

It isn’t just internet buying that can cause these issues.  Once a medication is bottled, it can travel great distances and be “laundered” into legitimate stores. But pharmaceuticals do have an overworked pharmacist who might catch a counterfeit.

Not so with supplements.  Not only do we not have good quality control on the ingredients going into supplements, we also lack adequate controls on the storage and transport of those supplements. Supplements can be literally anything (not what’s on the label) and be in any condition when then arrive.

A recent report by one of my colleagues details what can happen.

“Last week I got a phone call from a patient of mine who purchased her (prescription level supplement) refills from (a huge online retailer) because they were cheaper and she got free shipping. She took 2 caps in the morning and within 10 min she was covered in hives and her airway was closing.”

“She is an ICU nurse, so she took Benadryl and called 911. They hooked her up to some saline and by the time she got to the ER, she was ok. Once she got back home, she realized the capsules were a completely different color than the ones she purchased from (a Naturopathic Medical office). Not only that, she opened another bottle of supplements that she bought from the same place and all the capsules were melted into one big blob.”

What would have happened if the patient hadn’t known what to do and acted promptly?  How many people would understand that the supplement had been counterfeited?  Supplements are truly the wild-west in terms of quality control, and I cannot imagine anyone “going it alone” without having someone knowledgable that they trust to help them navigate the waters.

As we move toward an ever-increasing flow of pharmaceuticals across national boundaries we will see the same issues arising within standard drug channels.  A recent review in the UK found that the “majority of medicines purchased via unverified Internet sites are counterfeit.” But with the rapid rise of drug costs, patients will continue to find cheaper options, even if those contain no active drug.

When we look only at the U.S. and Europe, only about 1% of the drug supply is counterfeit, but the figure rises to 10% globally, and as high as 50% in some countries. The problem is ultimately that the consumer must be able to tell whether or not a drug is what it claims to be.  The doctor or the pharmacist cannot protect patients from home purchases, and the requirement that patients only purchase from pharmacies ignores the health-care cost reality.

With supplements, knowing your supplier is absolutely necessary.  Even then it is necessary for consumers to be aware of the lack of oversight.

Just because it is sold in a store or a pharmacy does not mean that it has been safeguarded.  Always discontinue any new supplement that causes any sort of health problem and ask questions of your suppliers. If a new drug causes a problem, contact the prescriber immediately.

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