Zimbabwe News and Internet Radio

Zimbabwe fights counterfeit medicines

By Vimbai Kamoyo

HARARE – Mbare Musika, arguably the country’s biggest market selling fruit and vegetable, and the sprawling slum settlement of Epworth may be 15 kilometres apart, but they have many aspects in common. Crime, litter and political instability are some of the commonalities they share. 

Counterfeit drugs on sale in a market
Counterfeit drugs on sale in a market

However, while the above similarities are well documented and very much in the public domain, there has been one aspect that has been conducted covertly – the sale of fake Anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs and other prescribed medicines.

Gugulethu Mahlangu, the director-general of the Medicines Control Authority of Zimbabwe (MCAZ), said fake medicine is any medicine with false representation in relation to its identity, history or source.

“Fake or counterfeit medicine is any medication with false representation in relation to content, source, packaging or labeling; such medicine may include correct components, or may include wrong components. It may be without or with wrong active ingredients or fake packaging. MCAZ approves wholesale dealers and licenses pharmacists as well as the pharmacies they operate from,” said Mahlangu, whose body regulates the licensing and dispensing of medicines in the country.

Pharmacist and proprietor of Excess Pharmacy, Edgar Mungadzi agrees with the MCAZ boss.

“All the medicines that are used in this country are tested in the laboratory and approved by the MCAZ and if they are not tested and certified then they are deemed to be fake medicine. At all events medicines should match standards set by the original manufacturer. They do so by checking on the boiling point or quickness in dissolving in a liquid,” he said.

A week-long investigation by this reporter in Mbare and Epworth unearthed shocking and dreadful medicine trading that has high potential of putting many people’s lives at risk.

Mbare medicine peddler Adeline Matara (not her real name), who at first was evasive and reluctant to speak on her “trade”, opened up only after promises that her identity would not be revealed. She confessed that although she sells a multiplicity of medicines she has no knowledge of the existence of fake medicine.

“I sell all types of drugs but I did not know that there is fake medicine. Drugs are all the same to me. I sell sex-enhancing tablets, skin-lightening drugs as well as ARVs. I get them from Zambia but they come further away,” she said.

Most of these drugs come from India and China via Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Some are then reportedly smuggled into Zimbabwe by canoes through the Zambezi River near Chirundu border post.

“ARVs are mostly sought after by people who do not want to disclose their HIV positive status particularly to their spouses and yet they need medication. The other reason for buying from the streets is price; here drugs are a lot cheaper than in most pharmacies, private or public hospitals. Most ARVs cost around US$50 in pharmacies and yet here they cost about US$20 or even less,” she added.

Another hawker who also requested anonymity but doubles with selling second-hand clothes at the open ground near Shawasha Flats in Mbare, conceded that the drugs he was selling were smuggled into the country and were not authorized by the MCZA. But he said he was in the illegal business because of economic challenges.

“I sell a cocktail of drugs including ARVs here and the business is fairly good. I buy them from dealers in Zambia and smuggle them into the country. Here and there I run into trouble with the police and the MCZA but I always find my way back because that is my livelihood. It is common knowledge that our country is going through a rough economic terrain and there are no jobs. Where are they (jobs) anyway?” he asked.

“I started this business as way back as 2006 and have managed to send my children to school, build a home in Hurungwe which is my rural area and I am paying rent for two rooms in the National area. So it is a matter of survival. To be honest I do not know whether they are genuine or not,” he explained.

It was the same story in Epworth, a semi-urban settlement on the south-eastern outskirts of the capital.

A woman who identified herself as Ratidzai Mukoka and sells vegetables at Stopover shops in the area cynically said there was nothing newsworthy about the sale of medicines from the streets as it was a common practice in the sprawling settlement.

“There is nothing new about people selling medicines from the street as it is common practice here. In fact there are people who move around selling them here (in Epworth) including ARVs. It is their source of income” she said.

True to her word, she called over a man with a white canvas bag full of an assortment of medicines most of which can only be bought by prescription. The man, however, said all his medicines were genuine but were smuggled out of hospitals by his suppliers.

Recently four registered nurses from Zimbabwe National Family Planning Council (ZNFPC) were arrested on allegations of stealing drugs worth over US$91 000 from their employer.

Zimbabwe which dollarized in February 2009 has been in the throes of economic hardships for over a decade owing to a number of reasons which include disrupted farming activities on commercial farms and economic sanctions imposed by the western countries for alleged human rights abuses.

While the dollarization has ushered stability in the macro-economic environment, the manufacturing industry has not fared well owing to a liquidity crunch in the local financial market.

The employment rate in the country has not been encouraging either.

The Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (Zimstats) director-general Dzinotizei Mutasa said the unemployment rate stands at 11 percent, a figure which was stridently disputed by independent economists who put it at over 80 percent.

Itai Rusike, director of Community Working Group on Health, a non-governmental organisation that deals with community public health issues, said illegal selling of drugs in the streets is a scourge that has become widespread and has to be stopped.

“Various types of drugs including ARVs which are both expired and unregistered are being smuggled in through the country’s porous borders. These drugs are sold in hair salons and in backyards. It is important for people to go to established health institutions to save their lives,” he advised.

The MCAZ has also advised the public to buy from licensed chemists as they are guaranteed of quality products, failure of which they can jeopardize their health.

“These controls are all meant to ensure that accessible medicines are of good quality, safe and effective. Members of the public need to know that when they buy from unapproved sources they lose all these assurances,” said Mahlangu.

The MCAZ chief said nipping the scourge, whose main driver was huge profits, was proving difficult because of the apparent collusion between the buyer and the seller.

“The major problem with the sale of these unapproved medicines is that there are members of the public who prefer to purchase medicines from unapproved sources. Over the years we have launched blitzes together with the police against some of these illegal traders but this only works for a short time. They appear in another place and their regular customers keep supporting them.

“Our position has been that members of the public should buy medicines from approved sources if they care about their health. There is no recourse if a person falls ill after taking medicine from unapproved persons or facilities. People should understand that medicines are poisons and should be cautioned against taking it without the intervention of a medical professional,” she said.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) illicit counterfeit medicine trade is lucrative “business”, with criminal networks raking billions annually across the globe. The international health organisation, however, said it was working flat-out to arrest the scourge.

“Life-saving drugs are not exempt from the trade in counterfeit medicines. WHO is working with International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol) to dislodge the criminal networks which are raking billions of dollars from this cynical trade” said WHO on its bulletin.