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Online drugs a big turn-off

Despite the risks, many South Africans continue to buy black market aphrodisiacs over the internet.

South Africans are among the biggest consumers of black market aphrodisiacs, according to the pharmaceutical company
Pharma Dynamics.

Over the past 12 months, the South African Revenue Service (Sars) confiscated 207 882 pills with an estimated total value of R21-million. This excludes 40 000 Viagra tablets found by customs officials at the Johannesburg International Mail Centre on Monday. The pills were in two boxes sent from Hong Kong and the packages were falsely labelled as plastic toys, said Sars.

Male sexual enhancement pills are considered to be one of the most counterfeited drugs in the world. Wider access to the internet has led to the growth of “online pharmacies” and an increase in the trade of counterfeit medication which the WHO said “poses a growing threat
to public health around the world”.

Severe side effects

According to Pharma Dynamics, most male enhancement pills are ordered online from websites in India, Malawi, the UK and Hong Kong, and go by explicit names such as Rock Hard, Mojo Nights, Lightning Rod, Black Mamba and Bullet Proof.

The WHO warns that both branded and generic drugs can be counterfeited and “counterfeit medicines may include products with the correct ingredients but fake packaging, with the wrong ingredients, without active ingredients or with insufficient active ingredients”. These products cause severe side effects such as therapeutic failure, drug resistance, and, “in many cases it can lead to death”. 

But despite the associated risks, many South Africans continue to buy medication over the internet.

“The problem is twofold,” said Pharma Dynamics spokesperson Tumi Motsei. “Firstly, people are offered erectile dysfunction drugs at a fraction of the price that they sell them for at licensed pharmacies and secondly, it’s a condition which men are often too embarrassed to discuss with their doctor. Counterfeit drug manufacturers take advantage of this vulnerability by making their products available without prescription. This then allows men to access prescription medication without seeking appropriate medical advice.”

Leon Ehlers, a family doctor with a special interest in sexual medicine from Umhlanga in Kwazulu-Natal, said he has seen “many patients who presented with side effects such as aches and pains and headaches resulting from the use of pills they either bought online or got from a friend”.

“Even if a person takes a product that is not counterfeit, he is treating something without knowing if there may an underlying problem like diabetes, hypertension or even a cardiovascular problem.”

Ehlers said there are various signs to look out for before taking any medication. The first is where the medication comes from.

Reputable source

“If it doesn’t come from a reputable source – that is a red flag. It’s normally a doctor that would give you a prescription, and it’s a
pharmacist that dispenses.

“If the packaging doesn’t look right, you must be on the alert. Sometimes these pills come in unsealed containers or blister packs that
are not sealed. All medicine in this country must have an information sheet in it, which tells you if there are any side effects to the medicine, how it works, and when it was manufactured.”

A group of drugs called PDE5 inhibitors is the most common treatment for erectile dysfunction and is successful in about 80% of cases. The first of these – Pfizer’s Viagra – became available to men in 1998 and works to strengthen and maintain erections by encouraging vasodilation [widening of the blood vessels] in the penis, according to University of KwaZulu-Natal pharmaceutical expert Andy Gray. Viagra was followed by products from other companies, such as Levitra from Bayer, and Cialis from Eli Lilly.

Ina Skosana was a health reporter at Bhekisisa.