The World Health Organization reports that one in four pharmaceuticals are fake. The problem hits home in the developing world, where scant regulation lets useless and sometimes dangerous medicine land on store shelves. Such scamming can lead to drug resistance, scary side effects, and even death.
Facundo M. Fernandez is a Chemistry Professor at Georgia Institute of Technology. On "The Takeaway," he talked about how he IDs fake pharmaceuticals.
A mass spectrometer -- an instrument used to measure the mass and concentrations of atoms and molecules -- is used to find the fakes, said Fernandez, "We try to look the composition of these fakes, and that ranges from looking at the chemicals inside of the tablet, and any particles that could be trapped in the tablets -- particles of pollen or things like that."
Some of the drugs most commonly faked are malaria medications.
"We have found a huge range of what we call wrong active ingredients," said Fernandez. "Probably the most shocking case was a recent case where we found ... anti-malarials that contained sildenafil, which is the active ingredient in Viagra."
According to Fernandez, in Southeast Asia, it is estimated that between 20 percent -- and in some cases up to 90 percent -- of anti-malaria pills are fake.
The risks of taking drugs which contain wrong active ingredients said Fernandez, are "That it could actually mask the symptoms of the disease. So, for example if the symptom is fever and it's malaria, and you take a fake tablet that contains acetaminophen, it will lower your fever so it will look like the disease is going away when it is not.
"The second, main risk is that the wrong active ingredient could generate resistance in the parasite to anti-malarial drugs, and that's actually a longer term risk."
Fernandez's advice to consumers: use common sense, "If something looks like it's too good of a deal to be true, don't do it. If the tablets are cheap it's because they don't really contain the active ingredient.
"Be very, very careful if you decide to buy online because there's a recent study that shows that in about 60 percent of the cases, you can get fake drugs if you buy online."
"The Takeaway" is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what’s ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH.