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Illicit pharmaceuticals flow freely in Johannesburg

Illicit pills are easy to access at the Randburg CBD Taxi Rank. Photo: Campbell Easton/frayintermedia

The sale of illicit and potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals at street vendor stalls continues unabated in Johannesburg. For R30, one can buy all forms of unregulated remedies, including tablets, from "entrepreneurs" who have a wide array of pharmaceuticals openly on display.

A vendor in the Randburg CBD, metres away from one of the city's busiest streets, sells an assortment of pharmaceutical products. These include a blue pill known as OTO, which he says helps improve men's sexual performance.

The 200mg pill is a Chinese remedy made from with extracts of goji berry leaves – its active ingredients are epimedium 50mg, rhizone 40mg, radix ginseng 30mg and lycium barbarum at 30mg.

People who consume the product potentially face exposure to organochlorine pesticides that may have been used during the cultivation of the goji berries. Organochlorine pesticides are banned in North America and Europe, but are still widely used in some Asian countries.

Common symptoms of exposure to these pesticides are headaches, nausea, fatigue, muscle twitching and visual disturbances. Products with goji berry, also known as wolf berry, are cited by the US Food and Drug Organisation as being coated with toxic pesticides containing methamidophos, which adversely affect nerve impulse transmission in the central nervous system.

Included in the vendor's wares are products with exotic names like Congo Dust, which hail from West African regions such as Senegal. Congo Dust is a powder that customers mix with a few drops of water to make a paste, which is then rubbed onto the penis at least three hours before engaging in sexual activity, according to one vendor who sells the product at the Randburg CBD taxi rank.

Interpol recently seized more than $51m worth of medicines from its annual Operation Pangea X campaign, targeting the online sale of pharmaceuticals and medical devices such as condoms, syringes and medical testing strips among others.

Interpol confiscated illicit pharmaceuticals worth an estimated $51m in Operation Pangea X. Image: Interpol

The campaign, which saw increased participation by African countries, revealed a surge in the sale of illicit pharmaceutical products on the African continent.

“The sale of fake or counterfeit pharmaceuticals is a growing concern across Africa, as it creates a dangerous situation for the health of unsuspecting consumers who trust that the products they purchase are safe to use," said Immanuel Sam, head of Interpol's National Central Bureau in Namibia.

Among vendors' items on display are a number that fall under the South African Revenue Service's list of infringements regarding counterfeit goods.

SARS has a mandate to monitor the flow of goods from customs departments into the country. The agency is tasked with imposing penalties on customs departments' non-compliance and preventing counterfeit goods being sold, hired out, bartered, exchanged, exhibited and those distributed for trade or other purposes.

The global pharmaceuticals sector is touted as reaching an estimated $400bn by the year 2019. The South African market, at approximately $2.8bn contributes almost 1% of GDP, and is the biggest pharmaceutical market on the African continent.