Last week I saw a segment on 60 Minutes narrated by my favorite TV doctor, Sanjay Gupta. He was in Peru chasing down some folks who were manufacturing counterfeit drugs in their home. According to the story, these fake drugs are made all over the world, and are a $75 billion business annually, with most of the drugs being sold on the internet.
About the same time I was watching 60 Minutes, this very blog was being hacked into by a website selling what I assume to be counterfeit drugs. The hackers placed a text link to buy online drugs on every single page of this site.
According to 60 Minutes, these counterfeit drugs are coming out of third world countries with packaging identical to legitimate prescription medications. Unfortunately, the packaging is pretty much the only thing that’s identical. The ingredients are a virtual free for all. They showed the drugs being made with seriously filthy water, sucrose, confectioner’s sugar, and chalk.
The biggest problem is that doctors can’t tell the difference between these fake drugs and the real. And—this is big—these drugs are finding their way into pharmacies, most notably hospital pharmacies in the US, Canada, and Great Britain.
The drugs are sold online at sites like genericmeds.com, ezmeds4u.com and the one that hacked me, basicpills.com. If you go to the basic pills site, you’ll find pictures of doctors in white coats, which lend an air of legitimacy. According to 60 Minutes, their goal is to appear Canadian, where many of our older citizens order their prescription drugs in order to save money.
Now, I can’t prove that the basic pills site is selling fake drugs unless I order some and send it to a lab. However, what kind of legitimate business has malicious viral hacking as their marketing plan? Beyond the doctors in white coats, if you read the text on the site, you’ll see that it was most likely translated from another language, as the English is awkward and the grammar is frequently incorrect. Also, apparently all you have to do is order your drugs and their doctor will “look things over”, and approve your order. Could this be any sketchier?
At this point, you may be thinking, what exactly does this have to do with Chinese medicine? So I’ll tell you.
First of all, I deal with many patients who are taking medications, such as anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants, and heartburn medications. Many of these medications have a serious rebound effect, in that if you stop taking them completely, your symptoms can get much, much worse. If they happen onto a batch of pseudo drugs, they could become really sick.
Secondly, I work with patients who have health issues in which their blood pressure meds, antibiotics, or pain medications don’t seem to be working for them. Do they need a larger prescription or did they run across some fake drugs? I realize that this may be the nature of the pharmaceutical world, in which you try a medication, try a dose, until you arrive at what works. But it also raises questions about whether these counterfeit meds are making their way into my patients’ lives.
This issue is also related in that toxins are considered to be a major cause of ill health in Chinese medicine. If you’re taking something that was made with water contaminated with who knows what, chalk, and whatever else they want to use, you could consider these fake drugs toxins.
Finally, as an herbalist, I spend a great deal of effort making sure that the herbs that I prescribe come from legitimate sources. They are tested and assayed to make sure they are what the manufacturers say they are. The factories are routinely inspected, GMP certified (good manufacturing process) and I feel fairly confident that what I’m prescribing to my patients is safe. So to hear about this epidemic of unsafe substances posing as medications, and to have them show up on my site, I’m appalled and pissed off.