x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Warning over supermarket drugs

The Health Authority-Abu Dhabi is urging people not to buy medications from supermarkets, because they are most likely fake or counterfeit.

ABU DHABI //Health officials are cautioning people against buying medication-like products from supermarkets and grocery stores.

In the past 16 months and after nearly 1,200 inspections, the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (Haad) has discovered eight locations selling counterfeit medication in the emirate: four supermarkets, two herbal shops and two pharmacies.

The two pharmacies and a small grocery store in Abu Dhabi were both found to be selling counterfeit Viagra.

The two pharmacies have since been closed down, but Dr Jamal al Kaabi, the acting director of the health system compliance department at Haad, warned that the problem of counterfeit, fake and wrongly labelled medications was more prevalent in supermarkets and herbal shops.

"Unfortunately, some medications that we have banned previously and pulled off the shelves were found either under different packaging, or under a different name, and present in supermarkets," he said. He cited PhytoShape, a diet pill banned in 2007 due to possibly fatal side effects, as an example. It was found in supermarkets packaged under the name PhytoDiasol.

Very few medicines may be sold anywhere other than a pharmacy. Weight loss drugs, antibiotics in any form, sexual enhancement drugs and contraceptive pills were all examples of medication that should be available only from pharmacies, he said.

Haad conducts three to four ad hoc inspections of the emirate's 609 pharmacies annually, in addition to inspections that occur when a complaint is filed.

Supermarkets, however, are not under the direct jurisdiction of Haad. "We received tips that supermarkets were selling strange medications and we sent mystery shoppers to investigate. We then followed up with a team of inspectors that have representatives from the municipality, the economic authority and the Abu Dhabi Food Control authority," he said.

People had to be aware that fake medicines, or banned medicines could kill them, he said. "Do not become biased because of some interesting packaging or an extremely low price or the promise that you will miraculously lose weight; drugs should never be bought from a supermarket," he said.

The majority of counterfeit, fake and wrongly-labelled medications were weight-loss remedies and sexual enhancement drugs, said Moutaz Zakar, a registered pharmacist and certified quality auditor at Haad. It was also common to find counterfeit versions of medication for illnesses such as diabetes or hypertension.

All medications should have an official price tag from the Ministry of Health, and pharmacists can be required to provide an attested invoice when asked.

Patients should also inform their pharmacists or doctors if a drug they are accustomed to taking suddenly provokes any unusual reactions or side effects, or they note a drop in the drug's efficiency.

Counterfeit drugs usually cost far less than the medicine they are imitating, said Mr Zakar. For example, a bottle of 30 fake, 100mg Viagra pills, found on a supermarket shelf, was being sold for Dh48. Genuine Viagra, manufactured by Pfizer and available only by prescription, costs Dh984 for the same amount.

Herbal remedies - even those marketed as "100 per cent natural" can also be unsafe, and have been found to contain dangerous chemicals.

"Tongkat Ali in particular was banned because it was a [fake] medication, imitating something else, and also because it was marketed as a natural remedy, when in fact we found dangerous chemicals in its make up," Mr Zakar said.

hkhalaf@thenational.ae