Although the availability of counterfeit consumer goods has plagued Ecuador’s economy for decades, the rapid increase in the availability of fake and adulterated medications is setting off alarm bells at the Ministry of Health.
“When you buy smuggled and counterfeit shoes and jeans you are hurting the economy and legitimate retailers but when you buy counterfeit drugs you may be hurting your health,” says Health Ministry spokeswoman Graciela Borrero. “In some cases, you could even be killing yourself.”
According to Ecuador custom agents, the amounts of counterfeit drugs seized at the ports and borders has soured in recent years, nearly doubling between 2021 and 2022. Most of the fake drugs, they say, come from Colombia where they are manufactured.
According to the Health Ministry, about 30% of drugs purchased in Ecuador are counterfeit or adulterated, a figure slightly below that of neighboring Peru and Colombia. The figure rises to 50% for medications purchased online. According to Borrero, the amount of drugs sold through social media ads has more than double from March 2022 to March 2023.
“This is very disturbing since people think they are getting medicine that will help them when, in fact, it does nothing at all or is even hurting them,” says Martin Goya, a Health Ministry consultant. “What is especially cruel is that the majority of the people buying these drugs are poor, without health insurance, who cannot afford to buy from a legitimate pharmacy.”
According to the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses, 66% of Ecuadorians do not have health insurance or an affiliation with the national Social Security health system that can cover or defray the cost of medications.
The Health Ministry says that all medications purchased from commercial pharmacies and public institutions, such as the Social Security service, are safe. “We are able to monitor these purchases closely and can say confidently that drugs sold through legitimate outlets are safe and authentic,” Borrero says. She added that the Ministry’s primary concern with pharmacies is making certain that outdated drugs are discarded.
According to the Interior Ministry, much of the increase in counterfeit medication sales involves money laundering operations by criminal gangs. Since January, the Ministry says police have made more than 30 arrests related to the illicit sales.