Whether it’s a shocking news report of the death of a celebrity supposedly from taking expired drugs or a story you hear from someone about a family member or friend whose death also has links to expired medicine, we should all be deeply concerned.
In Africa, weak health systems and poor regulation make the sale of expired and fake drugs a burden that the most vulnerable – the sick and poor, carry. At any given time on our continent, this affects millions of people.
What is an expired drug?
Every country mandates drug manufacturers to display an expiration date on all medicines they produce. The expiration date is the date after which manufacturers, can no longer guarantee that the drug is 100% potent and safe. The time between the making of the medicine and the date of expiration is called the shelf-life of the drug. Medication is guaranteed fully potent only during its shelf-life.
Some things affect how powerful and safe a drug remains after it leaves the factory. Improper storage with exposure to extreme temperatures, light, moisture, and oxygen can reduce how powerful and safe the drug will be.
Research carried out by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shows that under strict storage conditions, 88% of some drugs retain potency for as long as five years after their expiration date. The key words here though are “under strict storage conditions.”
How do expired drugs go from the marketplace into your home?
Inadequate governmental regulation and enforcement allow expired drugs to enter the market in a few ways.
Unscrupulous local and international manufacturers, pharmacies and patent medicine vendors knowingly sell expired drugs. The ignorance and lack of awareness of the majority of Africans make it possible for them to get away with such an amoral act. They sometimes go to the extent of changing or obscuring the expiration date.
Well-meaning NGOs also donate expired or close to expiration drugs to many African nations. The industries that give the drugs to the NGOs receive benefits that include tax deductions and an easy way to get rid of remaining stock without the expense of having to destroy them in their country legally.
Most people who use expired drugs do so unknowingly. For others who are aware that the drug is expired, reasons for not throwing it away include:
- Cost of the medication
- Lack of understanding of the danger in using it
- The mindset that an expired drug is better than no drug at all
Why does it matter?
If you’re dealing with a mild headache or an upset stomach, taking an expired drug that is no longer potent may not harm you in any significant way. Your problem will just not go away. On the other hand, if you have congestive heart failure, hypertension or diabetes and it turns out that the drug your life depends on is not 100% potent because it has expired, you will die!
Read our next blog when we will look at what makes expired drugs dangerous and what precautions you can take.