The counterfeit medicines — 88 tons total — were piled on the floor of two government warehouses in Cotonou, Benin. Two nearby warehouses housed 30 additional tons of counterfeits that the Beninese authorities had seized. Thirty workers, who had gathered for a training on pharmaceutical waste management, eyed the loose items — polypropylene bags and cardboard with mixed medicines, drums with liquid — all piled up to the ceiling. They wore protective gear, helmets, water-proof boots, masks, face shields, disposable coveralls, goggles, and gloves, and listened closely as the trainer spoke. This was a pivotal session: Once the training was over, Benin would have the in-country capacity to destroy pharmaceutical waste on its own and be one step closer to limiting the health risks surrounding the counterfeit drug trade.
According to the World Health Organization, about 100,000 deaths a year in Africa alone are linked to the counterfeit drug trade. Detecting these fake medicines has become more difficult, given counterfeiters’ increased access to digital printing and packaging techniques. Additionally, as the African and Asian pharmaceutical industries’ production capacities have increased and became more advanced, equally sophisticated monitoring and quality validation technology has struggled to keep up.
With these counterfeit and substandard medicines in circulation, often offered at more affordable prices and professionally packaged, it’s difficult for the end consumer to discern on their own which tablet is the right tablet. As a result, the entire health supply chain is threatened for people needing critical tuberculosis or malaria medicines.
Given these risks, it’s important that governments have policies in place to guard against producing, selling, and importing counterfeit products. In Benin, since 2009, there has been a sustained push to bring health and law enforcement officials together with the World Health Organization and Interpol to disrupt networks circulating fake medicines that span borders. Thanks to this collaboration, Benin seized approximately 118 tons of counterfeit medicines in 2016.