The World Health Organisation has launched a fresh drive against counterfeit drugs around the world.

Central to the International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce (IMPACT), which was launched in Bonn recently, is a call for harsher punishments for those involved in the illegal trade. The organisation said that in some countries those involved in the production or sale of counterfeit t-shirts face stiffer penalties than those facing people involved in the counterfeit drug trade.

The US –based Centre for Medicines in the Public Interest estimates that the value of the global counterfeit drug trade is likely to hit $75 billion by 2010 – a 90% rise on 2005.

While the scale of the illegal trade is difficult to calculate, WHO believes it represents around 1% of the drugs spend in developed countries and up to 10% in some developing countries.

“The impact on people's lives behind these figures is devastating,” said Dr Howard Zucker, WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Technology and Pharmaceuticals. He continued: “Whether rich or poor, many patients trustingly taking medicines may end up sicker or die. In addition, precious resources spent on these medicines go to waste.”

The taskforce sees WHO teaming up with 20 international partners and as well as tougher legislation it will address the impact of the Internet on distribution of the counterfeit drugs and will improve communications with health professionals to increase their awareness of the issue.

WHO says counterfeit drugs can cause massive harm through persuading sick people they are taking a medication which can help them when it often has no relevant active ingredient. In some cases the drugs can kill because they contain unsafe quantities of the active ingredient or even poison.