Would you buy medicine from a stranger at the side of the road? No, yet many people are doing the equivalent of this online every day, as Alastair Jeffrey of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency explains.
As a rule we tend to buy from sites and brands we know, so why do some people buy medicines from sites that are unfamiliar, offering brands they’ve probably never heard of?
Perhaps some are too embarrassed to speak to their doctor. Maybe they have consulted a doctor but the medication they wanted hasn’t been prescribed.
Dangerous medicines for sale
We know the demand is there because every year we seize millions of pounds worth of medicines, mostly slimming pills and erectile dysfunction medicines that are on route to people in the UK. All of these have been sold online; many will have been supplied illegally and could be unsafe.
A substantial amount are unlicensed generic versions of medicines and are unlikely to meet the required standards of quality and safety. Others may be counterfeit but all have the potential to be dangerous as they may contain impurities, wrong ingredients and sometimes no active ingredients at all.
An example are slimming pills which were seized and found to contain ingredients withdrawn in the UK due to health risks, specifically heart attack and stroke.
So it’s clear that buying medicines in this way is a gamble – there is no way of knowing if they’re manufactured to mandatory standards of quality and safety, nor if they’re stored and transported according to their specific requirements. We’ve found medicines being made in unacceptable conditions which, if you saw, would certainly make you think twice about taking them.
Those involved in selling and supplying these medicines have no interest whatsoever in your health, they are interested only in your money.
Safely buying medicines
To assist patients who choose to purchase medicines online, a European logo has been introduced to identify legitimate online suppliers. All suppliers of medicines must register with the MHRA and display the logo on the pages of their site offering to supply medicines to the public.
Our advice to anyone who’s seeking medical assistance is to visit their GP and get a correct diagnosis. Prescriptions should be fulfilled by a registered pharmacy, either from the premises on the high street or from those operating an online service. Self-diagnosis and self-medication can cause more harm than good.
We will continue to work with technology companies, patient safety groups and other stakeholders to close down sites acting illegally. And, in collaboration with colleagues in Border Force, we will seize illegally imported medicines as they come into the UK. However, demand has a massive influence on supply and if people continue to use these sites, they will continue to operate.
We’re very keen to find out why people use these sites and what their experiences have been. This will assist us in developing a strategy to make people aware of the risks involved and try to divert trade away from criminals and illegal sites.
This is a guest contribution by Alastair Jeffrey, head of enforcement at the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). All opinions are Alastair’s own, not necessarily those of Which?
If you’re concerned about a website selling medicines, report them here or contact MHRA’s counterfeit hotline on 0203 080 6330 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check if a website can legally sell medicines online here.