Human Trafficking in the Sahel: Murderous Cough Syrups and Counterfeit Drugs


Focusing on the illegal trade in substandard and counterfeit medicines, this feature is part of a UN news series investigating the fight against human trafficking in the Sahel.

From ineffective hand sanitizers to counterfeit antimalarial drugs, the illegal trade that escalated during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has been meticulously dismantled by the United Nations and its partners in Africa’s Sahel region. It is

Nearly half a million sub-Saharan Africans die each year from substandard and counterfeit medicines, including contraband infant cough syrup, according to a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) threat assessment report. are dropping.

The report shows how countries in the 6,000-kilometer-wide Sahel region, home to 300 million people, stretch from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean and join forces to stop counterfeit medicines at their borders and hold perpetrators accountable. Explaining.

The battle comes as the Sahelians face an unprecedented conflict. Conflict and violence have displaced more than 2.9 million people, armed groups have launched attacks and have already closed 11,000 schools and 7,000 health centers.

Desperate Supply Meets Desperate Demand

The region lacks medical care and has the highest incidence of malaria in the world, with infectious diseases being one of the leading causes of death.

“This gap between the supply and demand of health care is at least partially filled by drugs supplied from the illicit market to treat self-diagnosed illnesses and conditions,” the report said, particularly in rural areas. and rural street markets and unauthorized vendors. Conflict-affected areas may also be the sole source of medicines and medicines.

Estimated malaria incidence per 1,000 population at risk, by country, 2020

Fake Cure with Fatal Results

This study shows that the cost of illicit drug trafficking is high in terms of health care and human life.

Counterfeit or substandard antimalarial drugs kill 267,000 sub-Saharan Africans each year. Unapproved antibiotics used to treat severe pneumonia kill nearly 170,000 children in sub-Saharan Africa each year.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that caring for people who use counterfeit or substandard medical products to treat malaria in sub-Saharan Africa costs up to $44.7 million each year.

Counterfeit drugs on the market in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

Counterfeit drugs on the market in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

miscellaneous human trafficking

Corruption is one of the main reasons trade thrives.

About 40 percent of substandard and counterfeit medical products reported in Sahel countries between 2013 and 2021 were in regulated supply chains, according to the report. Diverted products from legitimate supply chains typically come from exporting countries such as Belgium, China, France and India. Some end up on pharmacy shelves.

According to the report, the perpetrators were pharmaceutical company employees, civil servants, law enforcement officers, health officials and street vendors, all motivated by potential financial gain.

Traffickers are finding ever more sophisticated routes, from working with pharmacists to exposing crimes online, according to a UNODC research brief on the issue.

Terrorist groups and non-state armed groups are commonly associated with drug trafficking in the Sahel, primarily due to the consumption of drugs in areas under their control and the imposition of “taxes” on shipments. It revolves around doing.

Cut supply to meet demand

Efforts are underway to adopt a regional approach to this issue, involving all countries in the region. For example, all Sahel countries, with the exception of Mauritania, have ratified the treaty establishing the African Medicines Agency, and the African Medicines Harmonization Initiative, launched by the African Union in 2009, aims to improve access to safe and affordable medicines. is intended to improve

All Sahel countries have legal provisions on the trafficking of medical products, but some laws are outdated, according to a UNODC study. The agency recommended, inter alia, amendments to the law in parallel with strengthening coordination among stakeholders.

Customs and law enforcement officers prevent large amounts of contraband from entering the markets of destination countries.

Customs and law enforcement officers prevent large amounts of contraband from entering the markets of destination countries.

countries take action

Noting that regional authorities seized about 605 tonnes of counterfeit medicines from 2017 to 2021, UNODC said law enforcement and judicial efforts to safeguard legitimate supply chains should be a priority.

For example, Operation Pangea, coordinated by Interpol, a 90-nation UN partner, targeted the online sale of medicines. This resulted in an 18% increase in seizures of unauthorized antiviral drugs and a 100% increase in seizures of unauthorized chloroquine for the treatment of malaria.

“Transnational organized crime groups are exploiting gaps in state regulation and oversight to sell substandard and counterfeit medical products,” said UNODC Executive Director Ghada Wali. “We need to help countries step up cooperation to bridge gaps, build law enforcement and criminal justice capacity, and raise public awareness to keep people safe.”

Following the deaths of 70 children in The Gambia in 2022, the World Health Organization has identified four pediatric drugs contaminated in the West African country.

Following the deaths of 70 children in The Gambia in 2022, the World Health Organization has identified four pediatric drugs contaminated in the West African country.

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