Every year 190,000 people die of improper prescription drug use

Beijing (AsiaNews) – Every year 190,000 people die from using out-of-date drugs or improper self-medication; another 2.5 millions are hospitalised. According to China Youth Daily press agency, China's pharmaceutical sector is poorly regulated, drugs are too often of low quality, and self-medication is widespread. The net result is that hundreds of thousands suffer.

"The only check on pharmaceutical sales at pharmacies is whether or not they are licensed to sell drugs," said Zhang Heyong, head of the China Non-Prescription Drug Association. "Pharmacies should instead protect consumers when they buy drugs [. . .] and pass on medical knowledge in order to make medicines safer."

Prescription drugs are in fact widely available without prescription in many pharmacies. According to the Straits Consumer News, Viagra, which must be taken under medical supervision, is instead easily available without prescription because "a lot of people mistakenly think that Viagra is a drug anyone can take to make you more sexually vigorous".

Meanwhile, the production of fake or pirated medicines—those that are illegally manufactured and packaged under brand names—remains a key problem, said Zheng Xiaoyu, head of the State Medical Products Supervision Commission. "The methods of manufacturing fake drugs are multiplying with modern packaging technology making it increasingly difficult to tell the difference between fake and real products," Mr Zheng said earlier this month. "Selling fake and low quality drugs is flourishing, is done both openly and secretly and is a cash-oriented business characterised by low prices and high returns."

The problem is compounded by the fact that only 30 per cent of consumers in China have a clear knowledge of the non-prescription drugs they take. The other 70 per cent administer non-prescription medicines themselves based on past experiences.

To top everything off, China's health care system is straining under its contradictions that the government is often eager to conceal. The SARS epidemic is case in point. For months after its outbreak, the authorities refused to inform the public about its nature. Only the intervention of current President Hu Jintao, who threatened to impose the death penalty on anyone who withheld information or did not follow quarantine regulations, was the veil of silence removed.

The SARS crisis also highlighted the contradictions of China's health care system in other ways. It showed that it is almost non-existent in the countryside and very expensive in the cities.

The AIDS crisis is hardly handled any better, especially in the case of sex workers or drug addicts, who are victims of discrimination and abuse that can include arbitrary detention and forced labour. Hospitals, too, engage in discriminatory practices refusing too often to admit infected patients.

Issues are often so sensitive that releasing statistical data becomes controversial. China's Health Department in 2001 reported 800,000 AIDS cases across the country. Six months later, the United Nations put the figure at 1.5 million. (DS)

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