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Could You be Using Illegal Meds? Five Things You Need to Know

A new HealthforAnimals analysis shows that the market for illegal medicines is estimated to be worth a shocking $2bn. It’s growing across all parts of the world, causing significant impacts on animal health and compromising the One Health movement.

What are illegal medicines?

Illegal medicines are counterfeit, falsified, and unregistered products, and unapproved parallel imports. The worst medicines are often ineffective because they don’t contain the right doses, or active ingredients necessary to tackle an infection, which is detrimental to the care and treatment of animals, and can heavily impact the livelihoods of farmers in developing countries.

We take a look at the impact of counterfeit medicines and what can be done to tackle them.

1. They can be fatal to animals

When a farmer or veterinarian uses an illegal product, they are putting their animals at risk. These products are often diluted or may not even contain the actual medicine they purport to. This means the animal’s disease simply goes untreated, which can lead to a decline in the animal’s health, and in some cases could be fatal.

The animal suffers while the counterfeiter profits.

2. They’re available through traditional distribution channels

Illegal medicines are often utilized because they are less expensive than authentic prescription drugs and are conveniently available online. In fact, in some cases veterinarians in North America, in particular, have been using or prescribing illegal products without even realising it. This is because many illegal medicines are available through legitimate distribution channels, such as official online pharmacies.

In some cases pet owners have been buying products, such as parasiticides, directly via unapproved internet pharmacies and websites such as eBay and Amazon, and even on social media channels.

While many pet owners and veterinarians may think purchasing them in this way is harmless, they do not realise that they are potentially causing significant industry issues, such as undermining the veterinary services industry, but primarily, potentially causing harm to their pets.

3. They risk increased AMR

Oftentimes, criminals will dilute an antibiotic before selling it to farmers or veterinarians. This allows them to sell more doses.

But, when an animal is treated with the illegal antibiotic, the weakened dosage is not strong enough to fully cure the disease. Instead, the bacteria build resistance to the antibiotic, which means second-line, more potent antibiotics are necessary, adding to the AMR problem.

4. They compound the difficulties of smallholders

Illegal medicines are used across the world, however, research shows that there is widespread use of illegal veterinary medicines in the developing countries of South-East Asia, India, Africa and Latin America. In developing regions such as these, farmers will spend valuable income on a disease treatment that may turn out to be illegal and ineffective. Their animals, the foundation of their livelihood, are then at risk of serious harm or even death when the illness remains unchecked. These ineffective veterinary medicines have a direct impact on the income of smallholder farmers.

5. Lack of efficacy increases exposure to zoonotic diseases

When medicines don’t work, animal health isn’t always the only concern. When illegal medicines are used to control zoonotic diseases, such as rabies, this poses a threat to human health also. If the animal treatment is ineffective or weakened, it can mean a stronger or more resistant zoonotic disease is spread to humans.

Solving the problem

It will take years to tackle the annual $2bn problem of illegal veterinary medications, but a collaborative approach will help get to the heart of the problem.

Raising awareness of the issue is the primary necessity. The more vigilant pet owners, veterinarians and farmers can be when treating their animals, ensuring they use the right products, will allow us to stop this growing threat in its tracks.

Read the report: Illegal Veterinary Medicines: Impact and Effective Control