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Battle against counterfeit drugs inspires artists

Pharmacy in Cambodia, an exhibit highlighting the dangers of fake drugs
Hen Sophal’s painting, Pharmacy in Cambodia, is featured in Pharmacide Arts, an exhibit of Southeast Asian artists highlighting the dangers of fake drugs. Sean Gleeson

A new artistic collaboration between artists from across the region has been launched at Institut Français and Meta House to highlight the threat of fake pharmaceutical products in Southeast Asia.

Comprising works from Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Indonesia, the month-long Pharmacide Arts exhibition will be shown in each represented country before travelling to France.

More than 100 Cambodian pharmacy students attended the launch at Institut Français, alongside the exhibiting artists and representatives from the French Embassy and the Ministry of Health.

Christian Connan, the French ambassador to Cambodia, launched the exhibition at Institut Français with a forceful invocation of the human cost of counterfeit pharmaceuticals in the region.

“This trafficking is targeting the poorest countries, and more especially poor families without healthcare protection. Even the most essential medicines for individual and collective health are affected: antimalarials, TB drugs, and HIV/AIDS medicines. Those fake medicines are spreading everywhere: in marketplaces, on the streets and on the internet,” he said.

In 2010, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated the global revenues from the sale and trafficking of counterfeit medicines was worth US$93 billion, almost double what the market was worth five years earlier.

According to the World Health Organization, Southeast Asia was until recently one of the regions worst affected by spurious, falsely labelled and falsified medicines, owing to the region’s relatively weak regulatory and enforcement systems for pharmaceutical products.

In addition to poor treatment outcomes, the WHO has warned that counterfeit medicines can result in the emergence of disease threats that are impervious to treatment.

Pharmaceuticals containing insufficient amounts of their active ingredients, a common iteration of fake medicines, allow parasitic and bacterial diseases like malaria and tuberculosis to develop drug resistant strains.

According to health experts, the prevalence of counterfeit medicines in the region has diminished in recent years, the result of concerted government action.

“Substandard, illegal, counterfeit drugs, whatever you want to call them, are a continuing concern in the world, but in Southeast Asia it’s getting better because governments have been taking the lead in taking on the problem,” said Dr Steven Bjorge, the World Health Organization’s Malaria Team Leader.

“Before 2008 there was wide evidence of substandard drugs in Cambodia. Since then, the Anti-Economic Crimes Unit and the Department of Food and Drugs have kept wholesalers, importers, and retailers under regular inspection,” he added.

“The prime minister pledged at the time to eliminate malaria by 2025, and this high-level support plus recourses has resulted in a great improvement in only a few years. Other countries can follow Cambodia’s example.”

The Pharmacide Arts exhibition offered stark depictions of those most likely to suffer at the hands of inadequate treatment.

Cambodian painter Hen Sophal’s Pharmacy in Cambodia canvas, echoing a setting illustrated by many of the exhibiting artists, shows an unscrupulous pharmacist with horns surrounded by the iconography of hell, preying upon the good faith of her customers.

Other artists took the opportunity to highlight some of the other shortcomings of pharmaceutical practice in the region.

Cambodian photographer Lim Sokchanlina’s untitled contribution shows a doctor riding down a dusty road with cases of medicine strapped to the passenger seat of his moto, drawing attention to the need for proper storage in order for pharmaceutical products to retain their efficacy.

For Dr Bjorge, education efforts like these have been instrumental in the fight to eradicate substandard medicines from pharmacy shelves in the country.

“Pharmacies have taken on the message that counterfeit medicines are bad for their patients,” he said.

“Drug police have been engaged in education and enforcement, a carrot and stick approach if you like. Retailers didn’t understand what they were doing, because they’re not trained pharmacists, and they may have been unwittingly passing them on without knowing about the health outcomes. Now they’ve been educated, so they know what is good and what is bad.”

The Pharmacide Arts exhibit is showing at both Institut Français and Meta house through Saturday, June 23.

To contact the reporter on this article: Sean Gleeson at ppp.lifestyle@gmail.com

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