05 July 2006

Health crooks to pay the price

The complementary medicine market is poorly regulated in South Africa. However, a self-monitoring programme, aimed at getting rid of the charlatans, has just been launched.

The manufacturer of a "miracle weight-loss pill" claims that it can help you lose 19kg in three weeks, an immune booster's label reads that it can "cure Aids", and an antioxidant is marketed to "treat cancer".

The labels of health products on display in local supermarkets and pharmacies are riddled with false and over-exaggerated claims – a situation that can, to a large extent, be blamed on the fact that the complementary medicine market in South Africa is poorly regulated.

However, the fraud in this lucrative, R2,1bn industry will hopefully soon be a thing of the past.

While the complementary medicine authorities in South Africa are still interacting with the Department of Health to try and get the appropriate regulations published, the Health Products Association of South Africa (HPA) has taken action by introducing a self-monitoring programme in the interim period.

Getting rid of the charlatans
The aim is to exclude manufacturers who are destroying the industry by means of unethical behaviour, said HPA chairman Dr Alan Tomlinson at a media conference to introduce the programme. The conference was held in Cape Town on 30 June.

By identifying and putting a stop to charlatans, the HPA hopes to improve the image of the industry, and to encourage appropriate regulations and self-regulation, according to Brent Murphy, a pharmacist and an executive council member of the HPA.

Fraudulent and exaggerated claims can give the impression that natural and complementary medicines are based on "quackery and mumbo-jumbo pseudoscience", Murphy says.

What the programme entails
According to the HPA, the self-monitoring programme will:

  • assist the Department of Health;
  • establish level playing fields;
  • reduce unethical behaviour; and
  • retain credibility among the public with regards to complementary and alternative medicines.

In practice, this means that the Association will keep a close eye on the market in order to identify "defaulters". Close co-operation with the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa and the Law Enforcement Unit of the Department of Health will also be a priority.

Assistance with regards to lists and claims, as well as technical expertise, will be given to members of the HPA.

Apart from these functions, a technical team will exist to assist all manufacturers of complementary medicines. This team will give advice on indications, lists and labels, compile an adverse-effects database, and process complaints of non-compliance.

The new regulations are expected to be released by the end of the year. At such a time, the self-monitoring programme will be seen as an extra protection measure.

- (Carine van Rooyen, Health24)

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