The Wall Street Journal released details this week of an investigation into large quantities of stolen—aka “diverted”—malaria medicines that the US government had donated to African countries through the President’s Malaria Initiative.
According to the article, the President’s Malaria Initiative has had a huge hand in reducing Africa’s malaria rate by a third between 2000 and 2010.
From the article by Benoît Faucon, Nicholas Bariyo and Jeanne Whalen:
But the effort has been partly hijacked by organized networks that steal large quantities of donated malaria drugs and ship them from East to West Africa, where they end up for sale at street markets, according to people familiar with the U.S. investigation. … Angola's health minister, Jose Van-Dunem, says that "maybe 15%" of donated malaria drugs are stolen annually. According to a person familiar with the U.S. investigation, more than 20% of donor-funded Coartem in Africa may be diverted each year—with a street value of about $60 million.
As the journalists correctly point out, in addition to the criminal ramifications, the theft of such large quantities of medicines could have severe negative public health consequences. If medicines aren’t stored properly, including while being trafficked across the continent in hot trucks, their quality could degrade. Not only could that leave people to die as a consequence of ingesting substandard Coartem—it could facilitate the emergence of resistance to one of the most important malaria drugs.
Hopefully the investigation is successful and leads to arrests and an end to the activities of the organized criminals involved. The theft of malaria medicines has been a challenge for several years, as my colleagues and I documented in 2010 when we published a study showing that 6.5 percent (of 894 samples) of anti-malaria medicines purchased from markets in 10 African cities had previously been stolen and diverted to the informal market.
The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria—the world’s leading source of international financing for malaria control efforts—held its most recent board meeting on November 7-8. At the meeting, the Global Fund’s inspector general reported that it is working with Interpol, the inspector generals of USAID and UNDP, and other agencies to ramp up its efforts against the infiltration of falsified medicines as well as the theft of medicines. They reported finding “a number of” falsified versions of artimisinin-based combination therapy (ACT) medicines used to treat malaria in West Africa, including samples with little or no active ingredient. Such collaborative efforts between the world’s leading public health agencies and financers is necessary to curb both large-scale theft and falsification.
Read the WSJ’s story here.
Read the Global Fund Inspector General’s Progress Report here.