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Gambling With Your Health: The Dangers Of Counterfeit Drugs

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Boric acid. Lead paint. Floor wax. Rat poison. You might expect to find these under your sink, but these substances have also made dangerous appearances where you would least suspect: in counterfeit medicines.

I've seen counterfeit versions of all types of medicines -- brand-name, over-the-counter and generic -- with treatments for erectile dysfunction at the top of the list. Counterfeiters have become more and more adept at manufacturing fake medicines that are increasingly realistic-looking -- duping patients who think they're getting the real thing. And more and more, people are getting these counterfeit medicines from fake online pharmacies that look remarkably real.

For Pfizer, pharmaceutical counterfeiting is first and foremost an issue of patient health and safety: Unlike authentic medicines, which are manufactured with authentic pharmaceutical ingredients in clean facilities under highly regulated, quality-controlled processes, these fake medicines are typically made at unregulated sites under extremely unsanitary conditions and may contain dangerous substances like pesticides.

What's more, counterfeits typically do not contain the approved dose of the active pharmaceutical ingredient they claim to, which means patients are deprived of the intended therapeutic benefit. When you end up with a fake medicine, it's like gambling with your health: you're taking a chance on what's actually in that tablet, and you could be putting yourself in a potentially dangerous situation.

To help protect patient health and safety, Pfizer partners with law enforcement around the world to develop and implement anti-counterfeiting strategies. We develop leads through sources like consumer complaints, conduct full investigations of suspected counterfeit operations, and share the evidence we uncover with authorities. We also assist by testing suspected products to determine authenticity and training law enforcement officials to spot fakes.

As counterfeiters look for ways to get their products into even more hands, they've turned to new technologies, and we've seen a proliferation of fake online pharmacies. These professional-looking websites promise safe, FDA-approved medicines; some of them ask consumers to complete medical questionnaires and provide medical records for their in-house "doctors" to review; I've even seen websites with pictures of a Canadian flag, trying to lure customers who trust that they're ordering from a safe and cheaper alternative.

Unfortunately, many people don't realize just how skillful counterfeiters have become at making these websites look legitimate. In reality, these fake websites -- and the counterfeiting operations behind them -- could be located anywhere around the globe. Pfizer Global Security has documented seizure of counterfeit versions of Pfizer medicines in at least 104 countries, and we've seen these fakes breach the legitimate supply chains in 55 countries. To add insult to injury, when you order from one of these fake sites using a credit card, you may be at risk for more than counterfeit pills; you also may end up a victim of identity theft.

Despite the threats posed by counterfeit medicines, it is possible to safely purchase legitimate, FDA-approved prescription medicines online. Pfizer has partnered with the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy® (NABP) and several other organizations on a YouTube channel, SpotFakeMeds, that allows consumers to hear firsthand from anti-counterfeiting experts about what to look out for and how to buy online safely.

One way for people with valid prescriptions from their healthcare professionals to be sure they're buying from a legitimate site is to see if it's received VIPPS® (Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites) accreditation from NABP, which signifies that the website in question is a licensed pharmacy where FDA-approved medications can be purchased. A list of VIPPS-accredited pharmacies can be found on the NABP website, www.AWARERx.org.

Outsmart the counterfeiters. It's possible to buy your medicines safely online. Educate yourself about counterfeits at the SpotFakeMeds YouTube channel, and make sure to order from a VIPPS-accredited site.

Consumers who suspect that they have purchased a counterfeit prescription medicine should contact their physician and the FDA's MedWatch program by phone at 1-800-332-1088 or online at www.fda.gov/MedWatch. Those who suspect they have purchased a counterfeit Pfizer product are also encouraged to call 1-800-438-1985.

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