Online pharmacies may seem appealing because of their cheap prices and easy access, but when it comes to filling your prescription online, there’s a lot you may not know.
Kendra Davis says she'll never forget the moment her life changed forever.
"As soon as I left, my mother's heart stopped completely and the emergency doctors on call went in. They made the decision to do an emergency opening of her chest in the hospital room," Davis remembered.
Hours earlier, Kendra's mom, Katherine Nya, had come out of heart surgery for a procedure doctors told her had a 97-percent success rate. Kendra says her mom was given heparin in the hospital. It's a drug used to prevent blood clots and often used after major surgeries like Nya's. Instead of getting better though, Kendra's mom was getting worse.
"The doctors were just very confused about her condition," said Davis.
Kendra says her mom went into respiratory failure and ultimately suffered severe brain and organ damage. She died 3 years later. Months after her mom's death, Kendra found herself in the midst of a large settlement with the maker of Heparin, Baxter Healthcare Corporation. The Food and Drug Administration had discovered the raw heparin ingredients imported from China were counterfeit and had caused many adverse health effects across the country from 2007-2008.
"Right now I don't feel that our drug supply is safe at all," Davis said.
Kendra believes her mom's story illustrated the devastating effects counterfeit drugs can have. Baxter, though, maintains there's no evidence Kendra's mom was ever given the contaminated heparin and says her cause of death was due to underlying medical conditions.
Even though, Katherine Nya's case of a counterfeit ingredient getting into the pharmaceutical supply chain is rare, experts say counterfeit drugs are making their way into people's homes everyday another way. It's all thanks to the world wide web.
Pfizer global security director Brian Donnelly says it's a dangerous world to enter.
"You're playing Russian roulette. You're going online and you don't really know what you're getting. You don't really know where this pharmacy is," Donnelly points out.
The World Health Organization estimated only 1 to 2 percent of prescription drugs in the U-S are fake. Even so, counterfeit drugs are arriving in the U-S every day because of these online pharmacies that claim to sell prescription drugs for far less than brick and mortar pharmacies.
It's becoming such a problem, several big pharmaceutical companies have teamed up to target counterfeit drugs on the web. Often times, the pills look exactly like their authentic counterparts, although the ingredients used to make the counterfeits may shock you.
Donnelly says he's seen everything from boric acid to sheet rock, talc and even road paint! Not only that, many times the counterfeit pills don't even have the active ingredient that's critical to your health.
"It's all about how the product looks. They don't care whether or not it works properly," Donnelly said.
The National Association of Board of Pharmacy says of the 10,000 websites it recently reviewed, 97% of them were peddling counterfeit or substandard medication.
"The mere fact that it has a maple leaf on there and it says Canada doesn't mean that it's in Canada. We've chased plenty of sites back and found they're hosted on sites in Eastern Europe," said Donnelly.
Not only that, often times counterfeit pills are made in the filthiest of conditions.
"You've got mold growing on the walls. You've got paint peeling off the walls. You've got all kinds of things going on in these operations. You can't even believe someone would make hand bags there let along drugs," Donnelly said.
Just last month, the FDA launched a major crackdown on nearly 10,000 websites that illegally sell potentially dangerous, unapproved prescription drugs. They seized many websites including ones made to look like real stores we all know: walgreens-store.com and c-v-s-pharmacy.com. They phony web address names are just slightly different from the real ones. These two sites now display the FDAs cybercrime investigations unit banner warning customers the sites are illegal.
"Once you get the product, you're not an expert. You're not going to be able to tell the difference," said Donnelly.
He assures people there are 3 things every consumer should know. First, if the price is too good to be true, it's probably fake. Second, websites that offer drugs without a prescription are breaking the law and likely selling counterfeits. Finally, it's easy to see what online pharmacies are legit by going to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy website and checking its list of vetted websites. There's also the FDA website which features a section called Be-Safe-Rx: Know Your Online Pharmacy.
Kendra says it's good advice, even though in her case it wouldn't have saved her mom. She's now suing Baxter and refusing to settle the case which she says would include a confidentiality agreement to never tell her mom's story again.
In a statement to NBC Connecticut, Baxter had this to say:
"Baxter takes responsibility for legitimate cases of harm related to the contaminated heparin recall very seriously. Mrs. Davis's case is not one of these cases. Public health authorities, such as CDC and FDA, identified a well-defined and discrete set of symptoms associated with heparin contamination. There is no medical or scientific evidence showing that Ms. Nya exhibited any of the symptoms associated with exposure to contaminated heparin. Nor is there any evidence Ms. Nya ever received contaminated heparin. Ms. Nya passed away in 2011, more than three years after she received heparin for her bypass surgery, and her cause of death was attributed to underlying, chronic medical conditions."