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CDC Health Information for International Travel 2008

Counterfeit Drugs and Travel

Worldwide Situation:

Counterfeit (or fake) drugs are products that are manufactured using incorrect, inactive, or harmful ingredients. These drugs are then packaged and labeled to look like real brand-name and generic drugs to deceive consumers into thinking that they are buying real drugs. Counterfeit drugs are unsafe because they may contain inactive ingredients that are not effective or toxic ingredients that are harmful to your health.

Counterfeit drugs present a worldwide public health problem that is difficult to measure. While counterfeiting occurs throughout the world, experts think that it is most common in developing countries and countries with few or no rules against making or distributing counterfeit drugs. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 10% to 30% of medicines sold in developing countries may be counterfeit, and some studies conclude that the percentage may be even higher.

The problem appears to be far less common in the industrialized world (countries such as the United States, Australia, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, and those in the European Union), where estimates suggest fewer than 1% of medicines sold are counterfeit.

What do counterfeit drugs look like?

The only way to really know if a drug is counterfeit is through chemical analysis done in a laboratory. However, there are some signs that you can look for that may indicate a counterfeit drug. For example, counterfeit tablets may—

  • Have a strange smell, taste, or color
  • Break apart very easily
  • Be in poor-quality packaging or packages with misspelled labels
  • Cost very little, especially compared with the normal price of that particular drug

What this means for you as a traveler:

CDC recommends that you bring with you all the drugs that you think you will need during your trip, rather than buying them while you are traveling.

The quality and safety of drugs purchased outside the United States cannot be guaranteed. These drugs may not meet United States quality standards, may have the same name but actually be a different drug, or may be counterfeit. These products may be dangerous to your health because they may contain too little or too much of the active ingredient, or they may not contain any active ingredients. These products may also contain toxic ingredients. Although many types of drugs could be counterfeit, drugs that prevent malaria are very often targeted by counterfeiters, especially in countries where malaria is a major health risk.

There may be times, however, when your only option is to buy drugs abroad (for example, if you have an extended stay or if you run out of the medicine that you brought with you). If you must buy drugs during your trip, there are things you can do to reduce your chances of buying drugs that are counterfeit:

  • Keep a copy of your prescriptions, including the brand or generic name and manufacturer of any medicine that you take regularly or that has been prescribed for your trip (for example, malaria medicines).
  • Buy medicines only from licensed pharmacies and get a receipt. Do not buy medicines from open markets.
  • Check with the pharmacist whether the drug has the same active ingredient as the one that you were taking.
  • Make sure that the medicine is in its original packaging.
  • Look closely at the packaging. Sometimes, poor-quality printing or otherwise strange looking packaging will indicate a counterfeit product.
  • If you choose to buy drugs online, check out the FDA’s Buying Prescription Medicines Online: A Consumer Safety Guide to learn how to buy safely.

Where you can find more information:

Drug counterfeiting is a growing problem, and information is continuously being updated. News media and government websites are good places to look for up-to-date information on reported or suspected drug counterfeiting.

The links below will give you a starting point in finding out more about counterfeit drugs:

  • Page last updated: December 22, 2008
  • Content source:
    Division of Global Migration and Quarantine
    National Center for Preparedness, Detection, and Control of Infectious Diseases
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