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by Kirby Jackson

The $14 million pharmaceutical industry in St Vincent and the Grenadines looks sets to continue to grow by leaps and bounds but it is possible that one out of every four drugs that are being used by Vincentians could be substandard or simply fake.

The local system, SEARCHLIGHT investigations revealed, is not designed to identify the fakes or treat the problem – as yet.

In 2005 the World Health Organization (WHO) determined that 10 per cent of the drugs on the world market were either fake or at the very least substandard and worst yet, hitting home, this was said to be the case with 25 per cent of the drugs sold in developing countries like those in the Caribbean, and here in St Vincent and the Grenadines.{{more}}

WHO researchers indicated that while developed countries battled substandard lifestyle drugs (such as Viagra-type pills), there was reason for grave concern in developing countries because the substandard drugs are those which are used to fight life threatening diseases.

This concern about substandard medications prompted the WHO to introduce and encourage a drug certification scheme for pharmaceutics which meant that drugs being imported must be registered – a complicated and expensive process that is not done in St Vincent and the Grenadines. However, it is practiced in varying levels in Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Jamaica, and Barbados.

This was a critical situation in the mind of the man responsible for policing the pharmaceuticals here, Drug Inspector Tyrone Jack.

“The threat of substandard medication penetrating the Vincentian market is one that concerns me and we really need stricter control measures,” he told SEARCHLIGHT.

“Drug registration is the ideal but we are not there yet.”

The Government of St Vincent and the Grenadines import drugs through the Organization Eastern Caribbean States’ Pharmaceutical Procurement Service. If patients experience ill effects or doctors complain about the efficacy of the drug or if there are any other grounds for suspicion, samples are sent to the Regional Caribbean Drug Testing Laboratory (RCDTL) in Jamaica for analysis.

Speaking from her Kingston laboratory, Dr Lucette Cargill, Director of the RCDTL told SEARCHLIGHT that in the past up to 16 per cent of drugs tested for other Caribbean governments were substandard or bogus but since inspection systems were strengthened by Caribbean governments this dropped to between six to seven per cent.

“This percentage may not give an accurate picture because not every pharmaceutical which is imported is tested,” she said.

Private sector loophole

Pharmaceuticals sold by private sector pharmacies however are not subject to these tests.

One pharmacist, who asked not be named, said that when pharmacies wanted drugs they simply ordered it as easy as one orders a shipment of popcorn. There are no tests to be done.

When this angle is added, Jack, fresh back from a meeting of the regional Regulators of Pharmaceutics hosted by the Pan American Health Organization in Barbados, said that there was an urgent need for a Regional Centre of Excellence because the job of proper and thorough drug inspection was too much for any one territory.

Dr Cargill said that the issue of private pharmaceutical dealers submitting products to be tested at the laboratory has been raised.

“It is the only way we could have an overall view of the quality of drugs on the regional market.” She also advocated that Caribbean countries that cannot boast of having a strong inspection system should get it right, stressing the importance of routine checks of the drugs sold in the private sector.

“I do not know however how much financial constraints contribute to Caribbean countries’ inability to properly monitor their pharmaceutical markets.”

While regular inspection is touted, the simple fact is that outside of drug registration a country is at the mercy of unscrupulous, greedy drug producers.