The International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce (IMPACT) aims to put a stop to the deadly trade in fake drugs, which studies suggest kill thousands of people every year.
"We need to help people become more aware of the growing market in counterfeit medicines and the public health risks associated with this illegal practice," said Dr Howard Zucker, Assistant Director-General for the Health Technology and Pharmaceuticals duster of departments at WHO.
The taskforce will encourage the public, distributors, pharmacists and hospital staff to inform the authorities about their suspicions regarding the authenticity of a drug or vaccine. In a parallel move, the taskforce will help governments crack down on corruption in the sections of their police forces and customs authorities charged with enforcing laws against drug counterfeiting. Drug manufacturers will be encouraged to make their products more difficult to fake.
The key members of the taskforce will be national drug regulatory authorities and law enforcement agencies. WHO will also seek the involvement of other international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, pharmaceutical manufacturing and wholesaling industry associations, patient advocacy groups and health-care professionals.
The taskforce will meet for the first time in mid-November in Germany. "We will decide on concrete projects and deliverables. We will decide who will do what and according to what deadlines," said Dr Valerio Reggi from WHO's Health Technology and Pharmaceuticals cluster of departments, who will coordinate the taskforce.
The idea of setting up this taskforce was approved at a meeting in Rome in February but it is the latest initiative in a long campaign.
For almost 20 years, WHO has been fighting drug counterfeiting since it became a major threat in the 1980s. "The problem was first noticed by the pharmaceutical industry. They saw that their own products were being copied," said Reggi, who has worked on drug regulation at WHO since 1989.
An estimated 1 in 4 packets of medicine sold in street markets in developing countries could be fake.
In mainland southeast Asia, artesunate, a vital antimalarial drug, is commonly faked. An international study conducted by Nick White and his colleagues and published in Tropical Medicine and International Health in 2004 found that 53% of artesunate tablet packs sold in the region did not contain artesunate.
Although it is difficult to obtain precise figures, the Food and Drug Administration in the United States of America estimates that worldwide sales of fake drugs exceed US$ 3.5 billion per year, according to a paper published in the journal PLoS Medicine in April 2005. The Center for Medicines in the Public Interest in the USA predicts that counterfeit drug sales could reach US$ 75 billion globally in 2010 if action is not taken to curb the trade.
Counterfeit drugs are found everywhere, but sub-Saharan Africa is particularly affected. "The dismantling of the health-care system in most African countries has created the vacuum into which counterfeiters have been able to slip," said Reggi.
In Africa, drugs are sold through the informal economy in large open-air markets alongside fruit and vegetables. …