“If you order medicines from international online stores, you can never be sure what you’re getting,”
says Taru Kallio-Nyholm, Trademark & Design Counsel at Orion. According to the WHO, the shocking truth is that up to 50% of prescription drugs from foreign online stores are falsified.
“You can never be sure what those products contain. Falsified medicines have been found to contain rat poison and arsenic, to give an example.”
Falsified medicines can cause liver or kidney damage, among other things, and even death.
“And even if the falsified medicinal product does not contain hazardous toxins, it may be ineffective. It may contain only a fraction of the advertised active ingredient, the rest being other substances, mainly impurities.”
Sometimes the falsified product does originate from a legal manufacturer.
“But once a batch passes its use-by date, it may end up in the hands of dishonest operators and be traded online.”
Medicines bought in Finland are safe
In Finnish pharmacies, only a handful of isolated cases of falsified medicines have been discovered. Falsified Orion products have never been encountered in the legal pharmaceutical supply channels.
Falsified medicinal products simply cannot slip through the system, thanks to the serialisation system enforced by the EU. Serialisation means verifying and marking each pack of prescription drugs with unique product codes so that each pack can be traced all the way back to its origin.
At the pharmacies, products are authenticated based on the serial number and product code: the numbers must correspond to the product codes given by the serialisation system.
“Finnish online pharmacies are safe. You can always check the authenticity of a Finnish online pharmacy from the Finnish Medicines Agency website or the eApteekki.fi service provided by the Association of Finnish Pharmacies. So if you order your medicine through the online service of your nearest pharmacy, or the website of another Finnish pharmacy, you don’t have to worry about falsified medicines,” Kallio-Nyholm says.
She emphasises the importance of always using reliable providers for medicinal products:
“Never order medicines from foreign websites, no matter how professional and reliable they may seem. Nor should you buy medicines from dubious places when travelling abroad, such as street vendors or market stalls. Make sure you bring with you a sufficient supply of the medicines you need during your trip.”
Falsified antibiotics and potency drugs
The most commonly falsified drugs globally are antibiotics, painkillers and antimalarial, diabetes and heart medicines. The COVID-19 pandemic created a market for falsified COVID-19 vaccines. Potency drugs, weight loss pills and certain nutritional supplements are also among the most typical falsified products.
The sale of falsified medicines often has connections with organised crime.
“Some drug trafficking and terrorist organisations are also involved in online trading of falsified medicines, as the profits are quite substantial.”
There are even factories in India and China that manufacture falsified medicines.
“People working there may not be aware that the products are actually illegal,” Kallio-Nyholm adds.
Falsified medicines can be difficult to recognise
How can you tell a medicinal product is falsified?
“Sometimes you can’t! Some falsified products are so skilfully made that even most professionals could not tell them apart from authentic products without laboratory testing.”
However, many of the products circulating on the foreign online markets and in street trade are so poorly made that they can easily be spotted as fake.
“The packaging can be of very poor quality: the cardboard tears easily and the colours printed on it leak at the touch of a finger. The two sides of a blister package aren’t always stuck together or the patient information leaflet has been produced with a cheap photocopier.”
Sometimes the name of the medicinal product or the manufacturer is misspelled. A surprisingly cheap price is also a red flag and could mean the product is falsified.
If you suspect that the medicine you have obtained has been falsified, do not bin it. Instead take it to the drug collection site at your local pharmacy, from where it will taken to be safely destroyed.
“You should also do so with products such a vitamins.”
Orion prevents falsified drugs from entering the market
Unfortunately, the more reputable the manufacturer, the more likely it is for their products to end up falsified. Orion has adopted a series of strict measures to ensure that all products labelled as Orion’s are what it says on the package.
“The EU-level serialisation system alone is a very efficient tool in securing drug safety as it ensures that no falsified drugs can end up in Finnish pharmacies,” says Kallio-Nyholm.
Orion also holds a comprehensive trademark portfolio. It protects the company’s main drug trademarks in countries where high numbers of falsified medicines are known to circulate or transit.
“This helps the authorities and people handling medicines in these countries to identify authentic Orion products and to legally intervene with the sale of falsified products. Orion works in close cooperation with the authorities to ensure the safety of its medicinal products.”
Perhaps an even more important way to prevent the falsification of medicines is to raise the issue in the media – to share information about the phenomenon and educate people about where to buy medicines.
“If people were aware of the risks that a falsified medicinal product can pose to one’s health, few would buy them from anywhere except Finnish pharmacies.”
How to make sure your medicines are safe
* Always buy your prescription medicines from a reliable pharmacy or online pharmacy.
* Never order prescription drugs from foreign websites that look like online pharmacies. There is no way of verifying whether the website is of a legal online pharmacy and the products it sells are authentic medicinal products with appropriate market authorisations. In the worst case, you may receive falsified product that contains toxic substances.
* Never buy medicines abroad from a market stall or street vendors. If you need medicines such as pain killers while travelling, make sure that the pharmacy you are using is legal.
* Preferably, bring all the medicines you think you will need during your trip from home. Make sure that you bring an extra supply of medicines to last a week, should your journey be delayed.
8 June 2022
Text: Essi Kähkönen