Is Your Medicine Contaminated?

As you lie in the hospital bed, watching the crystal-clear fluid drip from the IV bag hanging overhead, or when you stand atpillsryinge.jpg your bathroom sink, palm up, ready to pop your $12 pill into your mouth, you can console yourself that these medicines are so expensive because they’re being made under the strictest, safest conditions known to humankind, can’t you?

Um, well, no. Not any more.

The recent deaths of 19 patients due to contaminated heparin are a scary wake-up call to the American public. For a look into the risks each of us is taking from medicine we get by vein or mouth, read this recent New York Times piece about the unregulated China-fication of the pharmaceutical industry. Here are some insomnia-inducing (can I safely take an Ambien for that?) highlights:

1) “Eighty percent of the active pharmaceutical ingredients of drugs consumed in the United States are manufactured abroad; 40 percent are made in China and India.”

2) “There are 566 plants in China that export drugs to the United States, but the agency [F.D.A.] inspected just 13 of them last year.”

3) “Among the only foreign inspections that the F.D.A. still conducts are those done before a drug’s approval. Spot foreign inspections are rare. For logistical reasons, the agency warns foreign plants when its inspectors intend to visit, something not done domestically.” My emphasis added.

4) “Even the Chinese did not inspect the plant making contaminated heparin because, regulators there said, everything made at the plant was shipped overseas.”

5) Here’s a final, crazy-making fact about the situation: Guess who pays for Chinese drug-plant inspections? That’s right–you and me. Besides paying to fly inspectors around, our taxpayer money even pays for an FDA office in China. Making the pharmaceutical companies pay for inspection expenses might level the playing field when it comes to cheap imports. But then the inspectors are owned by the drug industry, not us–kind of like putting the pimp in charge of protecting human rights for prostitutes (see Doc Gurley post for more on this topic). But “why should the taxpayer pay for these inspections so that you can close a plant here and open it over there to ship it back?” Mr. Stupak, a Democratic member of Congress from Michigan is quoted as saying in the NYT article.

All of these issues are even more pressing when it comes to over-the-counter medicines, which (believe it or not) are even less regulated, more imported, and less inspected. Manufacturing and production of medicine is moving rapidly overseas. One thing is for sure, unless something drastic is done, soon, the lack of regulatory oversight on cheap mega-profit pharmaceutical imports is going to make 20 million recalled Made-In-China toys look tame by comparison. Let’s hope we all survive America’s drug company profit-game of Russian (hey, do they inspect there?) roulette.

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