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Buying medicines online: know the risks

Saturday 30 July 2011

From Australian ABC's Health & Wellbeing program:

 

Medicine mouseBuying medicines online: know the risks

By Kathy Graham
Published 27/07/2011

Buying medicines over the Internet without leaving your front door sounds very appealing. But is it safe?

Online shopping has taken off in a big way in recent years, and it's easy to see why – with convenience, competitive pricing and privacy proving draw cards for consumers.

As well as the weekly groceries and a new pair of shoes, people are also beginning to turn to the Internet for their prescription, over-the-counter and complementary medicines.

At present, Karen Kaye, deputy CEO of the NPS (National Prescribing Service), says less than one per cent of Australians over 50 buy their medicine online.

"But I wouldn't be surprised if that changes," she says. "Surveys done by others suggest more people want to shop this way."

With this trend likely to grow the concern is that many websites selling medicines are not legitimate.

Although they look professional and trustworthy, these so-called "rogue" sites are illegal and mostly operating from overseas.

Thus consumers who inadvertently order medicines from these sites can't know for sure exactly what they're getting.

Kaye warns that unless a website is reputable consumers risk buying medicines that are:

  • contaminated or counterfeit (fake)
  • past their use by date
  • not approved for sale in Australia
  • not manufactured to appropriate standards
  • not labelled, stored or shipped correctly

When you shop at a rogue site, you're wasting your money and may even be breaking the law – it's illegal to bring some medicines into Australia by post.

But worst of all, you're jeopardising your health.

Risky business

Cautionary tales abound about the unpleasant and dangerous effects of bad medicine purchased online by unsuspecting consumers.

Dr Geraldine Moses, a clinical pharmacist who has run the national NPS Adverse Medicines Events Line for the last 10 years, tells, for example, of one man who had a seizure when he took a counterfeit anti-anxiety medicine.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that up to one per cent of medicines available in the developed world, and 10 per cent globally, are fake.

Whether they're counterfeit versions of branded or generic medicines, copycat products are hard to pick because their phony packaging looks so real.

Yet what's inside may contain the wrong active ingredient, no active ingredient, too much or too little active ingredient as well as toxic or dangerous substances.

Though not yet a serious problem in Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Administration has nevertheless received 146 reports involving counterfeit medical products in the past 12 months. According to a spokeswoman, most are lifestyle medicines (for conditions including obesity, hair loss and erectile dysfunction) purchased in small amounts for personal use from overseas Internet sites.

And it's not just counterfeit medications which can cause problems.

For instance, Moses knows of a woman who developed thyroid problems after taking a purported herbal weight loss product found to contain thyroid hormone.

Far more stories never get told, she says.

"Lack of public awareness about the issue and a certain reluctance to look foolish means that when medicines don't work or cause nasty side effects, it's rarely reported," she says.

"Symptoms, even death, may also be attributed to the condition rather than the shonky medicine."

Safe shopping – what experts advise

To protect yourself, don't purchase any medications without talking to a qualified health professional first. All medicine can potentially cause adverse effects or interact with other medicines.

With the easy availability of health information and medicine online, it can be tempting to diagnose yourself and attempt to work out which medicine you need. Your doctor can advise the most suitable medicine for your condition, how to take it safely, and even recommend a reputable online pharmacy.

If you do buy medicines online, whether you're buying prescription, over-the-counter or complementary medicines, only use Australian websites.

"If you stay local you're likely to get an online pharmacy that's real, one that abides by the law, dispenses Australian products and does not substitute counterfeit or inferior copies," says Moses.

Medicines purchased from overseas sites, on the other hand, are not approved by the TGA for supply in Australia and may not meet their strict safety, quality and efficacy standards.

Reputable sites:

  • require a valid Australian-issued prescription from a licensed doctor to dispense prescription medicines. Beware sites that sell medicines without a prescription, or issue one following an 'online consultation'.
  • provide an Australian street address and telephone number.
  • have a licensed pharmacist available to answer questions.
  • protect your personal information including credit card details and medical history.
  • usually don't offer revolutionary, breakthrough or miracle cures, or remedies whose effectiveness is 'guaranteed'. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • don't send unsolicited emails.

Help!

It doesn't matter where you bought it – online or from a bricks-and-mortar pharmacy, if a medicine causes side effects, talk to your doctor or pharmacist immediately.

And report the matter to the Adverse Medicines Events Line on 1300134 237.

"If you don't report it, it's like it never happened," says Moses.

"By reporting, you add to our knowledge of what's going on; alert authorities to potential illegal and dodgy practices, and hopefully prevent harm from happening to other people."

In rare cases, adverse event reporting can lead to products being taken off the market.

You can also report questionable practices relating to medical products to the TGA.

 

The above originally appeared here.

 


 

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