Beware of counterfeit medicine online

FAKE Viagra might be a better bet than heroin for someone trying to earn big money illegally, with profits from the sale of counterfeit pharmaceuticals exceeding that of illegal drugs – and their volume increasing annually.

Illustrative stock photoIllustrative stock photo (Source: Sme)

FAKE Viagra might be a better bet than heroin for someone trying to earn big money illegally, with profits from the sale of counterfeit pharmaceuticals exceeding that of illegal drugs – and their volume increasing annually.

While this phenomenon is more common in countries with less strict supervision, Europe, and thus also Slovakia, has not escaped it, with the internet being the main distribution channel.

“In spite of efforts of the police as well as customs offices each year there are cases when falsified medicines get as far as to the patient and where the absence of the wanted effect is the best case,” Štefan Krchňák, a member of presidium the Slovak Chamber of Pharmacists (SLeK), told The Slovak Spectator.

The State Institute for Drug Control (ŠÚKL) repeatedly warns Slovaks to buy drugs exclusively via official channels. “By the sale of drugs from unofficial sources there is a danger that people could buy a medicine that does not need to meet required parameters for quality, security and therapeutic effect,” ŠÚKL spokeswoman Valéria Pernišová told The Slovak Spectator.

ŠÚKL looked closely at several samples of pills offered illegally via the internet. It focused on medications that are most commonly offered online for treatment of erectile dysfunction. All the tested pills failed to meet the requirements of the originals.

The ŠÚKL tested counterfeit versions of Viagra, Levitra and Cialis. The original pills differed from the fakes in their appearance and in the packaging. Laboratory tests showed that fake pills marked as Viagra contained no traces of the active ingredient. Pills marked as Levitra and Cialis contained a different active substance than the original pills. The institute also points out on its website that as these pills are sold only on the basis of a prescription, their sale online is illegal.

“Mostly pills marked by these brands are illegally offered on various anonymous websites,” the institute writes on its website. “The guarantee of safety and the effectiveness of medicine from such websites is not warranted.”

The most common counterfeit medicines purport to treat erectile dysfunction, sleeplessness, depression or anxiety, are antibiotics.

“On the internet in Slovakia there are also illegal medicines offered, which are not registered in Slovakia,” said Pernišová.

The ŠÚKL explains that only a properly registered brick-and-mortar pharmacy can sell pills online, and it can offer online only over-the-counter medication. The online sale of prescription drugs is prohibited in Slovakia. People can check the list of official online sellers on the ŠÚKL’s website, as pharmacies are obliged to announce that they offer medicine online.

Based on the latest regulation of the European Union, a website of an internet pharmacy will have to be marked by a logo, which, after clicking on it, will lead the user to the link of the national authority, the ŠÚKL in the case of Slovakia, Krchňák told The Slovak Spectator. Here the user can check whether the online pharmacy in which it wants to shop is on the list of internet pharmacies with a valid license.

Krchňák warns that people should be more careful when an alleged pharmacy is in another EU country. The customer should be even more careful when shopping medicines online from non-EU countries.

“When the user finds out that the pharmacy has its seats outside the EU, I do not recommend the purchase at all,” said Krchňák, adding that such schemes are often merely a way to access credit card data.

According to Krchňák, there are some indicators which may help people to find out whether somebody is offering fake medicine.

“It may be the look of the website itself with blinking or jumping out windows, which should catch the attention of the client, the price of the product, offering medicines which need to be prescribed by doctors, an untraditional size and other many details,” said Krchňák.

According to Pernišová, at first glance medicines bought from unofficial sources via the internet need not appear as fakes.

“Visual differences in packaging, the size and colour of medicines are distinguishable only when comparing the original and counterfeit medicine, not speaking about the content of the ingredient which can be specified only by laboratory tests,” said Pernišová.

Peter Stanko, a physician and expert in medicines agrees that it is only very difficult to distinguish between the original and fake medicine. As he told the Slovak Radio, this is why it is important whether the medicine was bought from an official source or somewhere else.

The ŠÚKL strongly recommends people to buy medicines only from official chains.

“There is almost no risk of purchase of counterfeit medicine in such a case,” said Pernišová. “In Slovakia there have not been detained any medicaments suspect from counterfeiting in the official distribution chain.”

In this respect Krchňák said that Slovakia is a relatively small market, where everyone knows everyone and the risk that fake medicines may infiltrate the legal distribution chains is low, though the possibility cannot be excluded completely.

“For example, such falsified medicines got into official distribution in Germany,” said Krchňák, adding that this is why the European Commission has approved a directive about the fight against falsified medicines, whose regulations will become effective as of 2017. Based on them, pharmacists will be obliged to check the validity of the unique code of each packaging of a medicine.

To buy or not to buy

The Slovak Association of Electronic Commerce (SAEC) does not focus on individual commodities sold via the internet but on needs of its members and certified online shops. But Jozef Dvorský, SAEC executive director, points also to positives the online purchasing of medicine can offer.

“Similarly to other goods and services, the sale of medicines via the internet helps shoppers to obtain for their need over-the-counter medication and medical aids which they otherwise had to buy personally in a brick-and-mortar pharmacy,” Dvorský said. “It is a welcomed help especially for people who are temporarily or permanently immobile and ill and who can get to medicaments via such a way and do not need to visit a brick-and-mortar pharmacy.”

He added that as any other kind of sale also the internet sale of medicines has its positives as well as its risks which the shopper should eliminate or minimise as much as possible before shopping. He recommends checking whether an internet pharmacy has official permission to sell pharmaceuticals online while his other recommendations are the same as in a purchase of any other commodity. Dvorský stressed that an online pharmacy is obliged to have published a telephone and e-mail address for consultations related to quality, security, side effects and other issues.

“We recommend checking these before the first purchase at an online pharmacy by phone and ask also about other duties resulting from the directive [on online pharmacies] and about which employees of such a pharmacy should have to have a good overview,” said Dvorský.

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