Report: Malaria drug theft in millions

Posted: April 21, 2011

LONDON - A global health fund believes millions of dollars' worth of its donated malaria drugs have been stolen in recent years, vastly exceeding the levels of theft previously suspected, according to confidential documents obtained by the Associated Press.

The internal investigation by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria comes two months into an anticorruption program that the fund launched after an AP report detailing fraud in their grants attracted intense scrutiny from donors.

In internal documents detailing drug thefts, officials identified 13 countries, mostly in Africa, where millions of dollars' worth of malaria drugs have vanished. According to the reports, theft in which donated drugs are sold on the black market "appears to be on the rise and [is] becoming increasingly sophisticated."

The reports were provided by an official with a different health organization on condition of anonymity because he was granted confidential access to the documents by a Global Fund staff member.

Global Fund spokesman Jon Liden confirmed that the fund suspected $2.5 million worth of malaria drugs had been stolen from Togo, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, and Cambodia, mainly from 2009 to 2011 but with some cases going further back. Investigations are under way to determine how much more was stolen elsewhere, Liden said.

"We take this very seriously," he said, "and we will do what it takes to protect our investment."

An AP report in January exposed high rates of misappropriated money in some Global Fund grants and bruised the reputation of the multibillion-dollar fund, which is backed by big names including Bono and Bill Gates and hailed as an alternative to the U.N. bureaucracy.

That these revelations have come to light at all, however, may be due to stricter self-policing and greater transparency at the fund, compared with other aid organizations.

Malaria infects more than 250 million people every year, killing about one million, the vast majority of them children in Africa. Because there is a huge demand for malaria drugs, which are widely available at pharmacies and on private markets, they are easier to sell than drugs for other diseases such as AIDS, which are mainly handed out at health clinics.

After discovering the scope of the malaria drug thefts, the new Global Fund documents indicate the fund took prompt action, suspending grants for medicines to be stored at government warehouses in Swaziland and Malawi.

Liden said that cutting African governments from the medicine supply chain wasn't realistic and that setting up independent distribution systems would be too expensive.

"We thoroughly reject the idea that we need to simply clamp down on drugs being sent to poor countries," he said. "That will cost lives."

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