BANGOR, Maine — Those pills your mother bought online last week to save a few bucks might have been made in a bucket in a dingy room in Pakistan, medicine safety experts warned during a Wednesday afternoon forum in City Hall.
Shabbir Imber Safdar, director of national outreach for Partnership for Safe Medicines, a group of not-for-profit organizations and individuals that work to craft policies and programs to protect consumers from counterfeit or contraband medicines, says the problem is becoming more and more prevalent as Americans take to the Internet to find deals on increasingly expensive pharmaceuticals.
An estimated 1 in 6 Americans make the dangerous gamble of buying prescription drugs online, Safdar said.
“These drugs are made in facilities that aren’t even as clean as our kitchens,” he told the small gathering inside Council Chambers.
He showed pictures from busted operations in countries such as Pakistan and Colombia, where people craft pills to closely replicate their legitimate brands under conditions that aren’t closely monitored or regulated.
In the case of these drugs, at best a buyer might get a placebo and at worst he or she might get a hazardous substance that could result in sickness or death.
Some of those pills are sold on websites that claim to be legitimate online pharmacies, complete with Facebook accounts, Twitter feeds and YouTube videos.
In other instances, physicians or pharmacists might purchase pharmaceuticals from overseas for their patients.
A Tennessee cancer doctor recently was sentenced to two years in prison for giving his patients mislabeled cancer drugs. In May, two Pakistani Nationals in the United Kingdom were extradited to face charges in the U.S. because they operated Internet sites that illegally shipped Pakistani-made drugs abroad. In all, those two men illegally shipped $2 million in pharmaceuticals from Pakistan and the United Kingdom to customers worldwide, including nearly $780,000 in sales to U.S. purchasers, according to the FBI.
Pharmaceutical regulations are more lax in other countries than in the U.S., and drugs purchased online could be coming from anywhere in the world, as it’s easy to mislead people with a well-crafted website, Safdar said.
Rodney Larson, the founding dean of Husson University’s School of Pharmacy, said he’s not aware of any local examples in which a person was made ill by fake drugs, but he’s sure there are plenty of people in the community who order drugs online.
“We like to talk to our pharmacy students about this issue because it’s very important,” he said, adding that while medications can save lives when used and monitored carefully, they are poisons when made or used incorrectly.
Felicity Homstead, director of pharmacy at Penobscot Community Health Care, outlined some of the services and programs offered through her organization to help low-income individuals afford their medications.
People should pay close attention to their drugs’ packaging, looking for any foreign writing, and to inform their doctor if they experience any odd side effects or notice the drugs don’t seem to be taking effect, Homstead said.
“You want to make sure before you order any medications online that you really do your homework,” she said.
For more information on fraudulent pharmaceuticals and how to ensure your medicines are safe, visit www.safemedicines.org.