Donated malaria drugs being stolen in Africa

By Maria Cheng
Associated Press / September 2, 2010

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LONDON — Millions of free malaria drugs are sent to Africa every year by international donors. New research is now providing evidence for what health workers have long suspected: Some of the donated medication is being stolen and resold on commercial markets.

During three periods from 2007 to 2010, American and British specialists bought malaria medicines randomly from private pharmacies in 11 African cities. Of the 894 samples, they found 58, or 6.5 percent, were supposed to have gone to government hospitals and clinics.

The study will be published today in the journal Research and Reports in Tropical Medicine and was paid for by the Legatum Institute, a US philanthropic group with no ties to drug makers.

The finding was particularly strong in artemesinin combination drugs, the best available malaria drugs, and those often purchased by international donors.

In 2007, the American and British specialists found about 15 percent of such donated drugs had been stolen for resale. This year, the figure was nearly 30 percent.

The authors acknowledge the sample sizes were small and could exaggerate the problem. Outside specialists said that donated drugs regularly disappear across corruption-plagued Africa, and that the research was credible. There have been no large-scale published studies analyzing the problem.

“The study is important because it clearly documents something that we need to study more closely,’’ said Tido von Schoen-Angerer, a director at Medecins Sans Frontieres, which works across Africa.

Von Schoen-Angerer said it is extremely difficult to determine the scale of the problem, because drugs usually are not followed from their origin to their ultimate destination in Africa.

According to an audit last year by the US President’s Malaria Initiative, about $640,000 worth of medicines sent to Angola vanished from airports and the government’s medicines warehouse.

“Critical malaria commodities are not reaching their intended beneficiaries, and more Angolans may be unnecessary victims,’’ the report said.

“We’ve heard about this kind of corruption anecdotally for years,’’ said Julian Harris, a health specialist at International Policy Network, a London-based think tank. He was not linked to the study.

“But the response from funders has been to keep throwing millions of dollars’ worth of these medicines into countries, even when there is evidence the drugs aren’t reaching the needy.’’

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