Ever wonder about the UN speeches given about how the US should try to do more to help Africa. Well recently, U.S. investigators are leading a probe into the widespread theft and black-market resale of malaria drugs donated to Africa by the U.S. government. Those are your hard earned tax dollars going to waste. Organized theft is plaguing the multibillion-dollar aid effort raising questions about the supervision of donations in corruption-ridden nations.
Tax Dollars Stolen
The theft is one of several challenges threatening to undermine years of progress in battling one of Africa’s deadliest diseases, which kills about 600,000 annually. Alongside other nations, the U.S. has spent billions of dollars on the effort in the past decade, the vast majority in sub-Saharan Africa.
Washington allocated close to $2.5 billion between 2006 and 2012 to the President’s Malaria Initiative, or PMI, a program launched by George W. Bush in 2005 and led by the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. Between 2002 and 2012, the U.S. also donated $7.3 billion to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria–an initiative set up by the United Nations and Western governments that spends one-third of its budget on malaria control.
Drug of Choice
Both programs spend a sizable part of their funds on distribution of Coartem, a malaria drug provided on a nonprofit basis by its manufacturer, Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis. But the effort has been partly hijacked by organized networks that steal large quantities of donated malaria drugs and ship them from East to West Africa, where they end up for sale at street markets. According to statistics, more than 20% of donor-funded Coartem in Africa may be diverted each year–with a street value of about $60 million. That diversion goes who knows where but someone is making money on it.
Black Market for Coartem
So let’s think this through. Patients were buying malaria treatments at black markets because they wanted to avoid queues and long trips to hospitals where they could get the medicine free. So rather than wait, they would pay for it. The packets sell for $2.50 to $5.00 apiece in the black market and there is no guarantee that it is not a fake. But if you wait in line at a hospital, it is free ($0.00).
The theft has potential consequences beyond the crime itself. Stolen drugs that are transported or stored in poor conditions could go bad and become ineffective without users knowing it. That puts their treatment at risk. In the long run, the availability of degraded, ineffective Coartem also raises risks that the parasite causing malaria could genetically mutate and grow resistant to the drug. Coartem shouldn’t be exposed to temperatures higher than 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). Now Africa is a hot climate and the common mode of transportation is by truck. I guarantee that those trucks are not air conditioned.
The countries where the trafficking is taking place are considered among the most corrupt in the world. Everyone seems to be getting a piece of the action from customs to health officials. The Wall Street Journal did an investigation, made with the knowledge of local authorities, to confirm that theft is a problem with donated malaria medicines. In Angola earlier this year, the Journal bought dozens of packets of Coartem at street markets. An analysis of the drugs carried out by Novartis showed that the majority had originally been donated by PMI or the Global Fund and were intended for distribution inside Tanzania only. Some other packets were found to be counterfeit. Only one sample out of the dozens bought by the Journal at Angolan markets was legitimate–neither fake nor stolen. A good deed being taken advantage of.
Should the US continue to use tax dollars to fund this initiative?