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FDA Cracks Down on Thousands of Illegal Online Pharmacies

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced recently that more than 18,000 illegal pharmacy websites were shut down in one week as the agency worked with law enforcement agencies in more than 100 countries. The U.S. agency alone took action against 4,100 of those pharmacies as part of the fifth annual International Internet Week of Action aimed at stopping online sales of counterfeit medicines.

The global effort, called Operation Pangea V, took place Sept. 25 through Oct. 2. In the course of targeting the illegal pharmacies, 3.7 million doses of fake medicines worth $10.5 million were seized by the end of the week, and 79 people were arrested, Reuters reports.

Operation Pangea V was directed by Interpol, the World Customs Organization, the Permanent Forum of International Pharmaceutical Crime, the Heads of Medicines Agencies Working Group of Enforcement Officers, Pharmaceutical Security Institute and Europol.

FDA Issues Warning Letters

During the week, the FDA screened all drugs entering the United States through international mail facilities. Three main companies — CanadaDrugs.com, Eyal Bar Oz and Arkadiy Kisin/White Forest Solutions — were linked to most of the 4,100 illegal pharmacies, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. They received warning letters from the FDA, stating that their websites were offering unapproved drugs to U.S. consumers. The companies were given 10 days to respond to the allegations, and it is not known if they have done so. The FDA also notified Internet service providers that the websites were selling illegal products.

Among the most common drugs for sale on these websites were illegal versions of erectile dysfunction drugs Viagra, Levitra and Cialis; unapproved contraceptive Norplant; an unapproved generic version of influenza treatment Tamiflu; unapproved antibiotic Baycip TZ; and a dangerous drug for stomach disorders, Bloomberg reports.

“Consumers in the United States and around the world face a real threat from Internet pharmacies that illegally sell potentially substandard, counterfeit, adulterated or otherwise unsafe medicines,” FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in a statement that was reported by Reuters. “This week’s efforts show that strong international enforcement efforts are required to combat this global public health problem.”

Clinical Psychiatry News, citing the Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies (CSIP), points out that counterfeit drug sales surpassed $75 billion worldwide in 2010, which is a 90 percent increase over 2009.

Public Awareness Campaign

On Sept. 28, the FDA launched a public awareness campaign to inform consumers about the dangers of buying medicine online. Its new website, fda.gov/BeSafeRx , explains how consumers can differentiate between fake and legitimate online pharmacies. The campaign is in response to an FDA survey that found one-quarter of consumers buy prescriptions online, but one-third said they were unsure how to make safe online purchases.

“Fraudulent and illegal online pharmacies often offer deeply discounted products,” Hamburg said in her statement. “If the low prices seem too good to be true, they probably are.”

Buying prescriptions online also makes it impossible for pharmacists to warn patients about drug interactions or dangerous side effects.

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