The cost of medicines is driving patients to play Russian roulette with their health, says John Costello
The colossal cost of chemist-shop prescriptions is forcing an increasing number of consumers to turn to the internet in search of cheap alternatives. But as bargain hunters surf to save, healthcare authorities are warning of the dangers.
We pay up to 12 times more for generic prescription drugs compared to other Europeans. And it is such high prices that are driving the rapid rise in pills bought illegally through online pharmacies, according to the Irish Medicines Board (IMB).
In response, gardaí and customs have ramped up efforts to target this lucrative trade, confiscating more than 120,000 tablets valued in excess of €375,000 in September over a one-week period.
However, such victories do little to stem the flood of online drugs into Ireland with over 1.25 million tablets seized in 2011.
According to the IMB, the most popular pills are erectile-dysfunction medicines, anti-depressants, weight-loss products and anabolic steroids.
Experts are warning those buying cheap drugs online they are playing Russian roulette with their health, as many of these drugs are fake and some even deadly, with ingredients such as leaded paint, talcum powder and even strychnine (rat poison).
Last month, an 18-year-old Dubliner had to have her colon removed after buying herbal diet pills online.
The pills contained a high dose of sibutramine, a prescription medicine banned in Ireland.
In the UK in May last year, Lorna Lambden (27) died after taking sleeping pills she'd bought over the internet. The amitriptyline tablets, which can be used as a sleeping pill in low doses, cause heart failure in larger doses.
"Buying drugs online can be dangerous and you can die from one click of your mouse," says Stephen McMahon of the Irish Patients Association. "Yes people may go online to save money, avoid embarrassment and for convenience, but whatever the reason they will very likely lose the safety and product support offered by community and hospital pharmacists."
"The websites involved are usually hosted overseas in countries with lax legal regimes," says Fine Gael Limerick TD Patrick O'Donovan, who has called for a crackdown on the sale of online medicine.
The authorities are eager to crack down and recently fined Corkman Brian Buckley €6,000 after he pleaded guilty to selling medical products without a prescription and advertising them online.
"I have called on the Department of Justice to consider tracing the credit card details of those buying drugs online," says Mr O'Donovan.
But with prescription drugs as expensive as ever, and while the debate on how to tackle online pharmacies drags on, the sale of internet drugs continues to experience the Viagra effect.