FDA Investigating Fake Drugs

How can you be sure the prescription drugs you buy aren't counterfeits?

The government is investigating recent cases of fake prescription drugs in pharmacies that in some cases were sold to patients.

The Food and Drug Administration and drug company officials have sent letters to pharmacies, distributors, physicians and patients informing them about the counterfeits.

Expensive Drugs Targeted By Counterfeiters

In a few recent cases, fakes of three expensive, injectable drugs were sold to pharmacies and patients: Serostim, a growth hormone sold by Serono and used in AIDS patients; Nutropin AQ, a growth hormone sold by Genentech, and Neupogen, a cancer drug sold by Amgen.

The FDA was able to investigate these cases because patients came forward, says Susan Winckler, group director of policy and advocacy for the American Pharmaceutical Association.

In one case, the Nutropin AQ counterfeit contained insulin, which if taken by a non-diabetic person can lower blood sugar, a dangerous situation. Amgen reports that the counterfeit Neupogen contained a clear liquid but no active ingredient.

Serono reports the counterfeit Serostim is of unknown efficacy and safety and could pose a risk to patients.

The New York Times reports that at least one of the counterfeit drugs, Serostim, made it to pharmacies because of unscrupulous distributors.

"Even though the United States has tight control over the manufacturing and distribution of pharmaceuticals, some have found a way to put a bad product on the market," Winckler says. "What is frightening in this case is that the counterfeiters did a very good job."

What's a Consumer To Do?

Winckler, whose organization represents pharmacists, says instances of faked prescription drugs are rare. Still, she gives the following advice to consumers:

Question the pharmacist and look at the product.

If you have used the drug before, notice any difference in appearance of the packaging or the drug.

For new drugs you can ask if the pharmacy is buying its drugs from reputable distributors and if they have had any problems with the firms recently.

Be careful online. Avoid buying drugs from online pharmacies not licensed in the United States, or from online drug stores that offer to either sell drugs without prescriptions or to write prescriptions. Reputable online pharmacies will have a seal of approval called VIPPS, or a Verified Internet Pharmaceutical Practice Site, provided by the national boards of pharmacy in the United States.

If you feel the drug you are taking is not working or there are adverse effects, call your doctor, pharmacist and even the drug manufacturer.

Claire Bower of ABCNEWS Radio and Robin Eisner of ABCNEWS.com contributed to this report.