Facing death in the fight against counterfeit medications

By Melissa Fassbender

- Last updated on GMT

Between 2000 and 2004, Nigeria was able to reduce counterfeit medicines in its pharmaceuticals market from more than 65% to 16%. (Image: iStock/PRImageFactory)
Between 2000 and 2004, Nigeria was able to reduce counterfeit medicines in its pharmaceuticals market from more than 65% to 16%. (Image: iStock/PRImageFactory)

Related tags Counterfeit medicines Counterfeit Fraud

In their pursuit to apply criminology theory to counterfeit medications, Nigerian leaders faced death, says researcher – but the country's efforts have ultimately been successful.

The research was led by Michigan State University and researcher John Spink, PhD, Director and Assistant Professor, Food Fraud Initiative and provides the foundation to apply criminology theory to preventing the production and sale of counterfeit medications.

This is a method to review an entire country’s product fraud issue. The central and simple theory can help identify the most efficient and effective countermeasures,” ​said Spink. “This research explains clearly and simply where there is a fraud opportunity and specifically how to prevent​.”

The researchers met the Nigeria counterfeit medicines team at a conference a few years ago and Spink said applying criminology theory “just seemed like a perfect fit​.”

According to the World Health Organization:

In Niger in 1995, 50,000 people were given fake meningitis vaccines, resulting in 2,500 meningitis related deaths.

In 1995, nearly 90 children in Haiti and 30 infants in India died due to consuming cough syrup tainted with a toxic chemical found in antifreeze.

In 2001, 38% of anti-malarial drugs in pharmacies in Southeast Asia didn’t contain any active ingredients.

Spink noted that the Nigerian leaders faced death in their pursuit to help reduce the dangers of counterfeit medicines. “They are extremely brave and courageous​,” he said, explaining that the country’s effort began when a health minister’s sister died from counterfeit medicines for a routine diabetes drug.

Criminology theory

Throughout the course of their research, Spink and his team worked with local law enforcement agencies in Nigeria where they studied protocols for crime scene investigation and forensic science.

The research also applies the crime triangle theory, which explains for fraud to work, there has to be a victim, a criminal, and a crime opportunity. Spink said that the goal is to reduce the size of this triangle by understanding how and why fraudsters evade the law. Audits and certifications also help in this process.

He also said it’s important to understand the different types of counterfeits, counterfeiters and counterfeiting organizations before selecting countermeasures.

In fact, between 2000 and 2004, the country was able to reduce counterfeit medicines in its pharmaceuticals market from more than 65% to 16%.

The Nigerian countermeasures were actually actions not just [proposals]​,” explained Spink. “This actually worked and actually in a country with so many challenges as Nigeria​.”

The next steps for the team will be working with the Nigerian team to apply the concept to food fraud. Additionally, the researchers plan on applying the theory to other countries; however, not in the US or China, where funding and regulatory agencies exist.

Spink explained that ultimately the focus needs to be on prevention, specifically implementing plans that can prevent rather than just enforce, before there can be real improvement.

In the end, the only ones who are for the counterfeits are the counterfeiters​,” said Spink. “Once the momentum swings, and great processes are in place that focus on prevention… they, anywhere, can make a difference​.”

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