Natalie Ambrosio | February 8, 2017
In 2008, a Nigerian company intentionally put diethylene glycol, an ingredient in brake fluid, in its teething syrup; 84 babies died. In many countries, it’s not rare for patients to be given tainted medicine — and in most cases there are no outward signs that these drugs might be lethal.
In Africa more than 120,000 people die annually because of both fake and substandard anti-malarial drugs. In Pakistan four years ago, a contaminated heart medicine killed more than 200 people. In the United States, Prince’s death in April apparently was caused by counterfeit drugs that were labeled as hydrocodone but contained a lethal dose of fentanyl, an opioid painkiller that is about 100 times as strong as morphine.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says counterfeit drugs may contain “incorrect ingredients, improper dosages of the correct ingredients, or they may contain hazardous ingredients.” The existence of such drugs is an international problem, as is the prevalence of substandard medications that don’t contain enough of their required active ingredient.
Marya Lieberman, a Notre Dame chemistry professor, says substandard drugs generally are the result of manufacturer error. “It could be that they are sloppy or that they don’t know how to do the quality control properly,” she says. Or medicines can be purposefully substandard and sold to countries lacking the resources to notice. In nations with many small manufacturers of medicines and no single distributor, knowing which companies are likely to sell substandard medicine is invaluable to pharmacies.
Now they have some help. Lieberman’s Paper Analytical Device project (PAD) began six years ago as a creative collaboration between Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College and has since evolved into an international effort to increase pharmacists’ awareness of the actual drugs they are receiving.