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Study: Over one-third of malaria drugs tested from Asia, Africa found to be fake

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A Congolese woman and her child with malaria speak with a doctor at the Makpandu refugee camp January 14, 2011 outside of the town of Yambio, south Sudan. GETTY

(CBS News) More than one-third of a random sample of malaria medicines bought from southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa were counterfeit or faulty, according to a new study.

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The findings, published in the June 2012 issue of the Lancet Infectious Diseases, consisted of drugs sold in 28 different countries between 1999 and 2010. The study was sponsored in part by the National Institutes of Health.

Out of the 1437 drugs tested from southeast Asia, 36 percent of them were fake when tested. The sample group from sub-Saharan Africa showed slightly better, yet still troublesome results with 20 percent of the drugs from there testing as falsified.

Other potential pill dangers found by researchers were 46 percent of malaria drugs in southeast Asia and 36 percent in sub-Saharan Africa were found to be in poor packaging, including drugs that had expired but were repackaged. Thirty-five percent of all the samples failed chemical analysis, meaning they didn't have enough medication in them to combat malaria despite their label.

"We feel a sense of emergency considering the impact these medicines can have," study author Gaurvika Nayyar, a researcher at the Fogarty International Center at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, told the Associated Press.

Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease caused by a parasite, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Symptoms include fever, chills and flu-like illness. While the disease is entirely preventable or treatable with medication, cases not promptly treated can lead to death. In 2010, there were 216 million cases worldwide of the disease, with 655,000 people dying from it. Ninety-one percent of those deaths occurred in the African region. The United States sees about 1,500 cases of malaria a year, with most of the cases happening in travelers returning from sub-Saharan Africa or southern Asia.

The authors of the study said while malaria is prevalent in 106 countries, only three African countries have laboratory facilities capable enough to test for fakes. They called for more laws to cut down on counterfeit medications, saying that fake malaria drugs "should be prosecuted as crimes against humanity." They also wrote that the need to let national medicine regulatory authorities protect the global drug trade was "more important than ever."

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