Like millions of Americans, I take allergy medicine. A few years ago, my doctor urged me to bid farewell to my local pharmacy and instead buy my medication from an online Canadian drug store, where it was cheaper. What terrible advice! The website was counterfeit and sent me "medicine" that was anything but — causing me to get severely sick for many months.
Millions of Americans could soon suffer the same fate. Congress is about to consider a bill that would make it legal for patients to import drugs from Canada. Lawmakers promise that the imports will be safe and effective. Unfortunately, that's wishful thinking.
Let's rewind. I started purchasing my allergy medicine online because it was cheaper. When the package arrived, nothing seemed amiss and the pills looked just like the ones from my local pharmacy. A few weeks after I started taking the new pills, I developed terrible migraines, stomachaches and gastrointestinal issues. I went to the doctor's office, but no one could conclude what was wrong. After months of diagnostic work ups and a hospital visit, I still had no answers.
I began to suspect the pills themselves after hearing many online pharmacies provide counterfeit medication. I stopped taking them and as mysteriously as they had begun, my symptoms quickly disappeared. I went online to investigate whether anyone else had similar experiences. What I found was jarring.
The seemingly legitimate online pharmacy I used was operating illegally, and it wasn't an exception. Over 96 percent of internet drug stores are illegal, according to a 2014 survey from the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. Many don't require a prescription. Some don't even have a physical address.
Counterfeit drugs containing dangerous toxins — such as rat poison, lead and paint thinner — abound on these sites. The World Health Organization warned that over half the drugs sold by online pharmacies with either no physical address, or a fake physical address, are counterfeit.
These risks are precisely why the government has long banned drug imports. The Health and Human Services department admits it is unable to guarantee the safety of imports. The FDA has similarly warned that these foreign medicines pose great risks to patients.
Supporters of importation argue that the government could protect patients by only allowing imports from Canadian pharmacies. Yet many supposedly Canadian pharmacies traffic in counterfeits. The FDA periodically confiscates and examines illegal drug imports. Officials found that 69 percent of confiscated shipments contained unsafe drugs — and 80 percent of the shipments came from Canada.Oftentimes, illegal online pharmacies claim to sell Canadian medicines, but actually obtain their drug supplies from unsafe developing countries. Even if the U.S. government tried to limit imports only to legitimate Canadian drug stores, many Americans would be fooled by extremely convincing imposter sites claiming to be Canadian.
If we open the door to widespread drug importation, I shudder to think how many patients will end up in the hospital — or worse. FDA officials and scientists are experts in their fields. They've repeatedly said legalizing imports would endanger patients.
I can only hope that Congress comes to its senses and listens to them. Better safe than sorry when it comes to our health.
Ali Schroer resides in Denver, Colorado.
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