Counterfeit in Herbal Medicines

‘I place my trust in nature,

The herbs, the roots the flowers, the extracts,

At my lowest, I still feel its nurture.

It is slow to counteract,

But it will leave my body stronger once its acts.

I place my trust in nature,

Yet sometimes when it doesn’t work,

I wonder what happened to the magic herb.

Is it a failure of the mighty creator?

Or the malicious intent of the human adulterator,

Who managed to corrupt the lifesaving nectar!’

“The side effects were scary. I couldn’t swallow the fact that I could lose my precious hair. God knows the amount of time I spent as a little girl adoring my luscious curls. Seeing my beauty fade away in my youth’s prime was unthinkable. Add to that the horrible side effects of chemotherapy! Yet, I mustered some courage. I knew that I had to make some tough decisions for the welfare of my family and me. I could not let thyroid cancer win. I went in for the dreaded treatment. Thankfully, I started recuperating. Cancer and the treatment had reduced me to mere bones. I became weak and frail.”

“One of my well-wishers suggested I visit an ayurvedic doctor for some concoction that can give my body its strength naturally. I was unsure because I did not want the herbs to interact with the drugs. I asked my oncologist if taking the supplement would make the condition any worse. After careful examination, and a few conversations with the ayurvedic doctor, I got a green signal. I was happy because somehow, taking natural medicines along with the prescription drugs felt like I was cleansing my body. I started feeling better, but little did I know that it was a fleeting moment of joy. Within a few weeks, I began to spiral. The tumor was back and more aggressive than before.

“I underwent surgery. Post that, I lost my ability to speak. My world turned upside down. I had no clue what I did wrong. I immediately stopped the Ayurvedic medicine. I blamed my doctors, my friends for the ill-fated advice. After a few months, I came across a newspaper article. It said that the Delhi police had arrested three key members of a gang for selling counterfeit fake ayurvedic products. These men sold the medicines to the shop I used to buy mine from. The cops raided the shop and shut it down. But I can never know if I was a victim of fate or their crime. I can never get closure. I feel cheated. I feel like I never had a voice even before my mishap. We never have a say on what we chose for our bodies.”

We at Acviss keep looking out for stories like these to address the pain points of our customers and, in turn, their customers. A chance encounter with this young woman in the story above propelled us to look at the counterfeit market in Ayurvedic products specifically. Tragic, yet compelling, it is conversations like these that propel us to fight the war against counterfeiting with renewed vigor.

Decoding the Counterfeit Market for Herbal Medicines 

The newspaper today is replete with such tragic stories of helpless victims. Ayurveda is India’s ancient form of medicine and treatment. With the charm of synthetic drugs weaning, Ayurveda and herbal medicine are emerging as solid forms of alternative medicine. Estimates from Science Direct say that nearly 80% of the world’s population uses herbal medicines. The claims that they have fewer adverse effects and are safe for long-term use compared to synthetic medications have made them the popular choice. They are more accessible and cost-effective. 

In India, insurance companies cover expenses for Ayurvedic treatment for specific medical conditions. Such claims are about 5-10% of the country’s medical insurance claims, according to a news report from The Hindu

There is no denying that Ayurveda is growing by leaps and bounds in terms of research and popularity. In this backdrop, it is essential to look at the counterfeit industry growing in a parallel manner. It is also crucial to understand the causes and types of such contamination. We need to find possible solutions that keep the sanctity of herbal medicines or Ayurvedic medicines intact. 

Poor quality or counterfeit herbal medications can severely impact patient health. More, it can create a negative image in the minds of the ordinary people about Ayurveda or herbal medicines. Unintendedly, counterfeit products can undermine the curing capacity of traditional drugs. This is where counterfeit identification and authenticity verification are critical.

What is counterfeit medicine?

Let us now get clarity of what encompasses counterfeit medicines.

The WHO defines counterfeit medicines as “one which is deliberately and fraudulently mislabelled with respect to identity and/or source.” 

Thus a counterfeit medicine can be any of the following:

  1. Products with correct ingredients, but of poor quality
  2. Products with incorrect ingredients
  3. Products without the required ingredients
  4. Products in which the active ingredients are in incorrect quantities
  5. Products in fake packages

Why do counterfeits thrive in herbal medicines and Ayurveda?

Here are some reasons why counterfeit medicines are abundant in the herbal medicine and Ayurveda industry.

  1. Deception is easy

It is almost impossible to differentiate between an original product and a counterfeit medicine by merely seeing them. Thus deceiving a consumer or even the doctors and suppliers is very easy.

When it comes to ayurvedic products, given that they mostly have a pungent taste, it becomes easier to deceive a consumer. The flavor does not determine if the product is substandard.

  1. No prescription

Most herbal medicines are available without prescription in India. Thus, the consumer does not have a thorough understanding of what are the expected side effects. In the case of dangerous adulterations, the consequences can be lethal. However, since the consumer has not been in touch with a medical practitioner, it becomes difficult to differentiate between normal and abnormal side-effects.   People believe that herbal medicines are harmless. Unfortunately, when taken without a prescription, they too can have adverse effects.

  1. Popularity

Mass media commonly advertises herbal medicines. Buying them online is easy. Herbal medication can also be daily supplements. Thus, the demand for herbal medicines is very high.

The customer base is diverse. The low cost of production coupled with high demand makes herbal medicines a good target for counterfeiting. Chemists sell these medicines often without a proper bill. The practice prevents anyone from tracking the supply chain.

  1. Unavailability of herbs

Thousands of years ago, when herbal medicines were introduced to humankind, the way of administration was different. The doctor or the acharya would cook up the concoction and administer it then and there. Now we have bottles and tablets even for these natural medicines. It is commercialized. The alarming fact is that the government of India has declared that more than 100 ayurvedic plants are scarce now. Massive deforestation has led to the unavailability of critical herbs. Thus, these herbs are then not used, or people use substandard ones.

Moreover, it is hard to distinguish between an ayurvedic plant and a plant that is similar in look and feel. Thus the job of adulterators becomes easy.

Types of Herbal Medicine and Ayurveda Counterfeits

Here are the main types of counterfeit products in Ayurveda/ herbal medicines: ·

1. Herbal Medicines mixed with synthetic pharmaceuticals

Right from steroids, NSAIDS to anti-diabetics, the adulterants used are becoming increasingly dangerous.

2. Herbal medicines mixed with harmful adulterants

Some waste products are combined with natural products to reduce production costs. One example is the use of white oil in coconut oil. Synthetic chemicals often enhance the natural look of the original product. These chemicals make the products more marketable, as also harmful.

People mix natural medicines with heavy metals like mercury and lead. Cases of lead poisoning due to such mixing are on the rise.

3. Medicines with incorrect active ingredients

When a manufacturer uses a substitute plant, intentionally or unintentionally, it puts the life of a consumer at stake. Some wrong plants, when used, can have toxic consequences. On the other hand, some substandard products may be ineffective in treating the underlying condition.

Role of Technology in Anti-Counterfeiting

Counterfeit drugs are not necessarily fake. They can have disproportionate or unwanted active ingredients. It is, therefore, necessary to arrest the distribution of such products. It will not just save cost for a company but serve the society at large.

Counterfeit technology can use a few of the following techniques:

  1. Track and trace option using RFIDs and new generation barcodes, 2D codes
  2. Overt markings like holograms, label codes, randomly generated patterns
  3. Covert methods like digital watermarks, embedded images, invisible printing and more
  4. Use chemicals or biological taggants

One such example of the effective use of technology in addressing the pressing issue was a service rolled out by Acviss for embedding unique, verifiable, and non-reproducible identities on product packaging. 

The pharmaceutical industry is one of the important industries we work with. Acviss got in touch with many pharmaceutical companies like Swisscore and Atrimed Pharmaceuticals. They started marking the medicine packs with labels, which had unique identifiers which consumers were able to verify using their smartphone. 

Users were able to identify the originality of the product instantly. Users had the option of reporting packages with fake codes. HP Labs had done something similar in conjunction with a social venture in Nigeria. The idea was to stop deaths caused by counterfeit medicines. There are similar initiatives these days across the globe, using various mediums.

The need for stringent regulations, especially for the sale and distribution of herbal medicines, cannot be understated. We must fight for the laws. In the meanwhile, companies can do their bit to protect their brand image and their consumers by using cutting edge technology like blockchain.

We could not reverse what happened to the young cancer survivor who told us her story given at the beginning of this blog. What we at Acviss have vowed to do is ensure that we bring in the best and latest technology to arrest this menace of counterfeit products. Check out our about us section to know more about the small steps we have taken in this direction. To get in touch with us, visit our contact us page and fill out the form or give us a call.

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