Customs Department Backs Malaria Elimination Plan with Zero Tolerance for Counterfeits
Em Khin Vorac, Deputy Director General, Department of Customs and Excise of the Government of Cambodia, speaks to CONTAINMENT’s Moeun Chhean Nariddh in Phnom Penh.
How is the General Department of Customs and Excise involved in the fight against counterfeit products and medicines?
With support from the Mekong Priority Solidarity Fund Project, coordinated by the French Embassy, we are active partners with other project members including the Ministry of Interior. We have had a number of meetings and workshops on the joint crackdown on counterfeit products and medicines. Our Customs officers are now positioned at different checkpoints along the land borders with Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. Most of the counterfeits, originating from neighbouring countries, seem to be getting through these checkpoints and for this reason we have increased the number of Customs personnel at these border crossings.
Our Customs officers remain vigilant. Some of these counterfeit medicines are smuggled through in small quantities in people’s handbags. Sometimes, they conceal them with lawful goods. For example, they might conceal about ten small cantons (of counterfeit medicines) with sacks of cement, piles of iron, boxes of cakes and sweets and other items where Customs duties have been paid. Under such circumstances it can get difficult to check all items coming into the country through these land borders.
We will confiscate all counterfeit and substandard malarial medicines and prosecute those who illegally bring them into the country. We cannot risk the lives of the Cambodian people.
Certainly more cooperation and sharing of information are needed from our neighbouring countries to curb smuggling of counterfeit medicines through these land border crossings.
What new efforts have been made by the Customs and Excise Department in the Mekong Priority Solidarity Fund Project?
Our monitoring, investigation, inspection and reporting activities have increased after our officers attended workshops in the project. In Pailin and Battambang, for instance, at a project workshop with Customs officers from 10 border checkpoints along the border with Thailand we made it known to them of the existence of the five so-called ‘ghost companies’ with fictitious addresses. These ‘ghost companies’ are responsible for the smuggling of fake medicines into the country.
I have informed His Excellency Pen Siman, (Director-General of the Department of Customs and Excise) of the five ghost companies and he has issued a letter to all Customs checkpoints in the country with an attached report, urging our offices to be extra vigilant in looking out for fake products, especially medicines, from these fictitious manufacturers. They are basically criminal rings with no respect for human lives.
What percentage of medicines produced by these ghost companies are anti-malarials?
Not much actually. But there are oral artemisinin monotherapies manufactured by these ‘ghost companies’ that are banned in the country. These monotherapies are one of the main reasons why there is malaria resistance in the country.
The Cambodian government has a national strategic plan to eliminate malaria from the country by 2025. How important is your work to combat counterfeit medicines in the context of Cambodia’s National Elimination Strategy for Malaria?
Clearly fake and substandard anti-malarials cause selection pressure and this makes problems related to resistance worse. His Excellency Prime Minister Hun Sen made the declaration at the National Health Congress to eliminate malaria by 2025, and we will abide by that order. We will confiscate all counterfeit and substandard malarial medicines and prosecute those who illegally bring them into the country. We cannot risk the lives of the Cambodian people.
Cambodians in remote areas do not take any notice on whether the drugs are fake or not. All they are bothered about is the price. If you give them counterfeits, they will take these medicines without any questions asked. And they will be putting their health at serious risk.
What kind of international assistance does the Customs and Excise Department need to implement its work more effectively?
We need more capacity-building for our Customs officers to carry out more effective inspections and seizures. We also need our own mini-laboratory to check the purity of seized drugs. At the present moment, all seized drugs are sent to CAMCONTROL (Cambodia Import-Export Inspection and Fraud Repression Directorate-General) or the Ministry of Mines and Energy for testing. We will only get the results back in a week, the earliest. That’s just too long to wait to charge an individual or a company for counterfeiting. We can only detain suspects for 48 hours, and we need to provide evidence within that period to charge them. If we fail to do so, then they are released.