HEALTH -- April 20, 2011 at 3:26 PM EDT
Global Fund Hit by Millions of Dollars in Malaria Drug Thefts
Child with severe malaria in Tanzania. Photo by Talea Miller.
Millions of dollars worth of malaria medication donated through the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria may have been lost to theft, according to internal documents obtained by the Associated Press.
The Global Fund confirmed to AP an estimated $2.5 million worth of malaria drugs may have been taken from Togo, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Swaziland and Cambodia between 2009 and 2011. Potential theft was also found in eight other countries, most in Africa, according to the documents.
The fund has been investigating malaria medication shipments stolen and sold for profit for months -- in September, a spokesperson told the NewsHour a probe was ongoing in several countries -- but the scale is far larger than the tens of thousands of dollars originally suspected.
The fund responded to the AP article with a statement refuting serious "misrepresentations and factual inaccuracies," including the statement that perhaps "hundreds of millions" in drugs may have been stolen. The Associated Press issued a correction Wednesday for one section of the article that alleged a million in stolen medication from a program in Tanzania.
But the Global Fund did acknowledge theft as a challenge, and emphasized its efforts to combat theft.
"The Global Fund is at the forefront of the response to drug theft," the statement read. "It remains committed to the highest standards of transparency and accountability and has acted upon each instance of misuse of its resources taking strong and swift action by suspending grants, freezing cash disbursements and demanding a return of misused funds."
In one such case of confirmed theft in Togo, the organization has received $600,000 of $850,000 required repayment, the fund said.
The news is the latest blow to the organization, which is the largest international funder of malaria and tuberculosis programs and one of the largest international funders of HIV services. Media reports earlier this year focused attention on several countries' misuse of donated money, prompting the fund to launch an external review to evaluate its financial controls. Several European nations have suspended $180 million in donations to the fund while the review is ongoing.
The United States is the single largest contributor, making up about one third of total commitments.
The Global Fund had already suspended payments to countries where corruption was found last year, and the new documents show it also took action in the case of stolen medications, suspending grants to warehouses in Swaziland and Malawi after theft was discovered.
Security personnel, warehouse managers and doctors were implicated most often in the thefts that could be traced.
"The cases show that drug misappropriations are well-organized and predominantly planned by insiders using falsified documents," one of the reports said.
The Global Fund is not the only organization to face medications theft, and the problem is by no means new. USAID's U.S. President's Malaria Initiative found malaria drugs were "persistently stolen" from the program in Angola in 2009.
"Four major thefts of the malaria drug, Coartem, valued at over $642,000, have occurred under PMI in Angola," a PMI report reads. "Critical malaria commodities are not reaching their intended beneficiaries and more Angolans may be unnecessary victims."
In a study released last year, independent researchers found about 6.5 percent of malaria medications sampled in private pharmacies in several African countries were identified as stolen by packaging and "not for sale" labels.
Roger Bate of the American Enterprise Institute and two colleagues from Africa Fighting Malaria looked at 11 cities in Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Nigeria over a three-year period and collected 900 samples.
For artemisinin combination drugs, the most effective medications available for malaria, the percentage of theft was even higher; 15 percent were stolen drugs in 2007, and 30 percent in 2010.