The safety of prescription drugs and other medications purchased abroad is an often discussed topic in travel health forums. Particularly in developing world areas, there is a certain fear that drugs — even those sold by licensed pharmacies — could be counterfeit and possibly unsafe.
Recent news stories and literature in credible journals, such as The Lancet, confirm many of these fears. In a recent journal article from The Lancet, a study shows that as many as one third (more in some cases) of antimalarial drugs sold in southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are impure or poorly packaged. In many cases, the drugs may not be harmful, but they may be ineffective because of improper dosing. In some instances, however, the drugs could be potentially harmful.
The World Health Organization, for their part, estimates that as many as 10% of the world’s pharmaceutical drugs are counterfeit. In some areas, this percentage rises much higher. In the majority of industrialized nations, the frequency of counterfeit pharmaceuticals is very low (often less than 1%). That leaves the developing world, where the percentages are undoubtedly much higher.
What does this mean for travelers?
First, take a deep breath. It is possible to get medications abroad without getting something that is counterfeit. There are a few guidelines you should follow, however:
1. Don’t buy medications from the internet.
This should be a no-brainer, yet there are still many people that do it. The percentages of counterfeit drugs are highest with those purchased on the internet. This makes sense as the internet is one of the more unregulated zones of commerce. Someone can set up a shop in Eastern Europe selling whatever they want, put their products on a shiny webpage and start attracting clients. Steer clear!
2. Only buy medications from licensed pharmacies or actual medical centers.
In the developing world, you will see people selling medications just about everywhere. Here in Mali, I regularly see pharmaceuticals sold in boutiques, and some of these medications are high powered antibiotics like ciprofloxacin or metronidazole. These are much more likely to be of poor quality than something that is sold from an actual pharmacy or medical center.
3. Check with your embassy.
Your embassy should be able to tell you more about the local situation. They can recommend specific pharmacies and/or clinics and medical centers and they can tell you whether there has been a particular problem with prescription drugs in the area. If there has been a problem with low-quality antimalarials, for example, they should know about this.
4. Take what you need before you leave.
The foolproof way of avoiding problems when it comes to buying prescription drugs abroad, is to simply bring all of your medications with you. While it may seem like a burden to carry around all of this medicine, especially if you are going on a lengthy trip, it ensures that you will be taking high quality products. Make sure that all medications are clearly labeled before heading out and furthermore, you should have your prescription with you (if you needed on to get the medication).
If you have any thoughts or stories related to drug quality abroad, particularly in developing world areas, please share them in the comments below.
**Update**: Google has produced a map that sources stories on counterfeit drugs. This is very helpful when it comes to seeing if there is a risk at your destination. Have a look here: