Fake medicines are increasingly endangering lives around the world because they offer high returns with low risks for criminal organisations, according to a World Health Organization report.
"Fraudulent medicines offer organised criminal groups a high-return commodity with relatively low risks, ultimately at the expense of the health of unsuspecting people," said Yury Fedotov, executive director of the United Nations' Office on Drugs and Crime.
"These counterfeit goods indiscriminately kill, depriving the poorest of life-saving medicines and leading to countless deaths," Fedotov said in a statement.
With an annual estimated value of $1.6 billion (1.1 billion euros) in Africa and Asia alone, the dangerous -- and often deadly -- fraudulent medicine industry has become not only a key health-related concern across the world, but also a growing area of organised crime, the UNODC said.
"With low risks and high returns, the attraction to criminal groups is evident," it said.
According to the World Health Organisation, three in 10 pharmaceutical products in the combined African, Asian and Latin American markets are fake.
And 50 to 60 percent of anti-infective medications in parts of Asia and Africa have been shown to have active ingredients outside of acceptable limits.
The phenomenon is not, however, limited to the developing world, the UNODC said.
Despite fewer detected cases of fraudulent medicines in developed countries, the European Customs Union in 2008 alone blocked more than 3,200 attempts to import fake medicines, involving almost nine million units.
In addition to the direct impact on victims' health, substandard medicines could also promote microbial resistance, UNODC said.
"Health experts have warned that each under-medicated patient becomes an evolutionary vector through which 'superbugs' can develop, posing a global threat to public health," it said.