VIR­TUAL HEALTH­CARE CON­CERNS

BioSpectrum (Asia) - - Edit - Milind Kokje Chief Ed­i­tor milind.kokje@mmac­tiv.com

E-com­merce is an emerg­ing mar­ket place for a large va­ri­ety of com­modi­ties & ob­jects. Go­ing by the ris­ing pop­u­lar­ity of e-com­merce web­sites, it is prob­a­bly the most con­ve­nient mar­ket place for con­sumers. Medicines and drugs are no ex­cep­tions.

As per the Al­liance for Safe On­line Phar­ma­cies (ASOP) data, there are 35,000 to 50,000 ac­tive on­line drug sell­ers. By 2009, the on­line sale of phar­ma­cies was $ 11 bil­lion. While these fig­ures are im­pres­sive, the other data is wor­ry­ing. Over 96% of these on­line sell­ers do not com­ply with ap­pli­ca­ble laws. Ac­cord­ing to WHO, 50% of the pre­scrip­tion medicines they sell are coun­ter­feit.

Coun­ter­feit drugs in it­self is a big in­dus­try, worth about $75 bil­lion. On­line drug trade, due to its very na­ture, has con­trib­uted to sale of coun­ter­feit drugs. Hence, dan­gers and risks in­volved in the on­line drug sales are very se­ri­ous.

US Food & Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion (USFDA) re­cently ini­ti­ated ac­tion against web­sites il­le­gally sell­ing po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous, un­ap­proved ver­sions of pre­scrip­tion drugs. Over 500 such web­sites have been either sent warn­ing let­ters or even seized their do­main names. This is not the first time that the USFDA has acted against such web­sites. Op­er­a­tion Pangea is an an­nual ef­fort to con­trol the on­line sale of coun­ter­feit, il­le­gal drugs.

A few months back, In­dian au­thor­i­ties con­ducted raids in Bengaluru lead­ing to seizure of huge stocks of medicines to be sold on­line. US seemed to be ma­jor mar­ket for these seized medicines. The on­line sale of medicines is op­posed by the phar­macy shops through their as­so­ci­a­tions. The In­dian gov­ern­ment ap­pointed an ex­pert com­mit­tee to look into the is­sue and re­ceived its re­port. How­ever, no ac­tion has yet been ini­ti­ated on the rec­om­men­da­tions.

Au­thor­i­ties in all coun­tries are fac­ing chal­lenges in con­trol­ling the on­line drug trade. In Ja­pan only one on­line phar­macy com­plied with the con­cerned Ja­panese laws while large crim­i­nal net­works con­trolled over 40% of on­line drug mar­ket. In Euro­pean union, at any given time over 30,000 il­le­gal phar­ma­cies are avail­able to the con­sumers.

The chal­lenges are due to the very face­less na­ture of in­ter­net based e-com­merce that al­lows the sell­ers to hide their iden­tity in any form. Ac­cord­ing to WHO, 50% of coun­ter­feit pre­scrip­tion medicines are sold by web­sites that hide their phys­i­cal ad­dress. Ini­ti­at­ing any ac­tion against such web­sites be­comes dif­fi­cult. Even if ac­tions are ini­ti­ated to shut down the web­site, clos­ing one op­er­a­tion and start­ing an­other with dif­fer­ent name is very easy. As a re­sult, the num­ber of web­sites in­volved in il­le­gal medicines sale never re­duces.

Op­er­a­tion Pangea is a global ac­tion com­pris­ing of coun­tries to crack down on web­sites in­volved in sale of il­le­gal drugs. Sim­i­larly, in ad­di­tion to the reg­u­lar mon­i­tor­ing of the web­sites and such ac­tions, a global ini­tia­tive needs to be launched to give ap­proval to good web­sites. Such an ini­tia­tive should also run a global cam­paign to alert con­sumers in buy­ing medicines from only ap­proved web­sites. More steps can also be taken to re­duce drug coun­ter­feit­ing such as con­struct­ing in­ter­net search al­go­rithms so that le­git­i­mate pharma web­sites ap­pear first. Such steps will help in cre­at­ing bet­ter pub­lic aware­ness. But these ef­forts will be suc­cess­ful only if they are global in real sense with sin­cere par­tic­i­pa­tion from all coun­tries. Other­wise the pe­ri­odic mon­i­tor­ing and sub­se­quent ac­tions will con­tinue with­out much real ef­fect.

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