The department of health, which, by law, has to ensure that
all products purporting to be medicines are registered, is struggling to control
the industry as it has become too large to shut down.
Many of the complementary medicines are believed to be
manufactured locally. It is thought that there are more than 15 000
complementary medicines on the South African market and about 30 000 registered
The products, which can be found at local pharmacies, on
the Internet and through various informal traders, and even at taxi ranks, are
illegal because although many claim to cure diseases, they are not registered
with the Medicines Control Council (MCC), which all medicines are required to
Certain individual products, The Star found, claim to cure
everything from cancer and HIV and AIDS to arthritis, rheumatism, high blood
pressure, urinary tract infections, thrush, eczema and acne.
A source at the health department told The Star that the
illegal industry had grown out of control to such an extent that no one really
knows how many illegal medicines were on the market.
The belief is that they (the health department) can't
close down the market because it's too large. So the department is not enforcing
the Medicines and Related Substances Control Act, said the source, adding
that to enforce the law, all the department had to do was lay a criminal charge
against the manufacturers of the illegal products.
Dr Alan Tomlinson, chairperson of the Health Products
Association of South Africa (HPASA), whose members are manufacturers of
complementary medicines, said that while the industry was generally a
responsible one, there are some cowboys who manufacture in their back
gardens, who are harming our industry.
Two diseases in particular had been exploited by the
complementary medicines market: HIV, AIDS and cancer.
The health department source explained that consumers put
themselves at greater risk by taking such products, as they could become sicker
and could even die.
A medicine can be dangerous not only because of what it does, but also
because of what it fails to do. If you take a wonderful tonic that claims to
cure HIV and AIDS and don't take your antiretrovirals, you could die
quickly, the source said.
The source added there was no way to ensure that the
unregistered products were manufactured according to industry specifications.
The products are being sold from R80 upwards to
unsuspecting consumers, who are unaware that the products are not registered
whether they contain what they say they do or are in the correct doses.
Tomlinson said the HPASA, which represents more than 100
members in the health products industry, and other stakeholders were in talks
with the department of health to draft regulations to control the manufacture of
The MCC started the process in 2002, but there is still no
indication of when it will become law.
Tomlinson said many of those who made extravagant claims
about their products were not members of the HPASA, but admitted it was
difficult to reprimand them.
He said that if the HPASA discovered such manufacturers
operating, they usually referred them to the department of health's law
Lorraine Osman, from the Pharmaceutical Society of South
Africa, said they were concerned about the lack of safety, quality and efficacy
of many products on the market.
There is sometimes a perception that just because a
product is thought to be of natural origin, it must be safe. This is clearly
untrue as many of the deadliest poisons are of natural origin, Osman said.
Nathan Geffen, from the Treatment Action Campaign, said the
sale of complementary medicines that claimed to cure HIV and AIDS was an
unethical practice that needs to be brought under control.
He said the TAC was investigating the manufacturers of two
products that claimed to cure HIV and AIDS and had many documented cases of
people who have taken unproven medicines.
At the time of going to press, the department of health had
not been able to reply to queries on the burgeoning illegal medicines market.
MCC chairperson Professor Peter Eagles, however, told The
Star that the MCC was developing regulations for the registration of
complementary medicines, which would be submitted to the minister of health for
This is an important stage of the process initiated
by Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang to regulate these medicines in the interest
of the public and stakeholders alike, Eagles said.
The regulations would ensure that complementary medicines
would have the desired quality, safety and efficacy, and would be to the
benefit of the public.
This article was originally published on page 1 of The Star
on September 26, 2006