How to avoid counterfeit drugs while travelling

Anyone wandering through a street market from Bangkok to Barcelona will have seen them.

The ‘brand name’ sunglasses going for a few dollars a pair. The European football shirt – practically indistinguishable from the one in the club shop (apart from the price tag, of course).

It’s a reality of 21st century commerce that few industries manage to escape the attention of counterfeiters keen to offer a cheap facsimile for a fraction of the price.

Pharmaceutical drugs are no exception.

But the risks associated with buying a ‘knock-off’ sports jersey pale in comparison to those faced by patients unwittingly receiving substandard medication.

And the problem may be more widespread than you think.

A 2017 World Health Organisation survey of low and middle-income countries found that 10.5 per cent of medications sampled were fake or substandard.

The report cited Asia as responsible for the largest flow of counterfeit medicines entering the market but the problem was global – and often very difficult for the end consumer to guard against.

These counterfeits may appear near-identical to authentic products – being meticulously branded, complete with quality marks and sold over the counter in seemingly legitimate pharmacies.

Doctor John Quinn, Tangiers International’s medical director, said: “What you often find is a very low quantity of the drug. If you want to pass standards in certain countries, you just need a presence of the drug – but this may be very far from a efficacious dose.

“For example, it may be claiming to be a 10mg tablet of beta blocker, but perhaps only 60 per cent of it actually is – the rest is filler. So, in reality, you’re only getting about half of what you need.

“The other aspect is when you get a completely illegitimate product. Essentially, they’ve just made a copy of the packaging and included something which will – at best – have no effect on your medical issue. That’s potentially very dangerous.”

The most obvious guard against inadvertently buying fake medicines – the gulf in price between what you expect to pay and the low-cost alternative being offered to you – is unfortunately insufficient.

Counterfeiters are smart enough to know that whacking a hefty price tag on something can often persuade cautious buyers – despite what’s contained within being a low-value product.

Dr Quinn said: “That’s why when you go to some countries that do not produce their own medicine, there might be the German product, for example, which is $38 and then you see a local brand and it’s the same amount of tablets for $1.50.

“Of course, it doesn’t necessarily mean the cheaper product is counterfeit or of inferior quality.”

Tangiers International offers a 24 hour helpline to policy holders enabling them to get advice and recommendations about where to purchase pharmaceutical products to ensure they’re legitimate.

By consulting with local partners, the company can ascertain where to collect your prescription or over-the-counter medication – and, crucially, where to avoid.

Dr Quinn said: “We cannot access what medication you have in your hand, but we can direct you to which pharmacies are recommended or trusted by our partners in the region.”