On Monday this week, former French president Jacques Chirac, joined by a number of African leaders and international dignitaries, launched an initiative in Benin to ban the sale of counterfeit malaria and tuberculosis drugs. The World Health Organisation estimates that up to 30% of drugs sold in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America are fake and that counterfeit drugs are responsible for up to 20 percent of the one million malaria deaths worldwide each year.

Boingboing (boingboing.net) pointed me to an article on the Smithsonian website (smithsonianmag.com) called The Fatal Consequences of Counterfeit Drugs, which reports on the efforts by forensic investigators in Southeast Asia to uncover this deadly industry.

At its core beats the cold, greedy heart that governs the making and peddling of medicines.

Nothing is new under the sun.

Intrigued by this photograph which I found tagged “malaria” on Flickr, I searched for more information about Atabrine, the drug featured on the sign.

Atabrine was a synthetic quinine substitute administered to troops during World War II to ward off malaria. According to a report of the Surgeon General of the United States Army in 1941, hospitalisation for malaria of enlisted men in Panama and the Philippines was well over 100 for each 1000 stationed there.

And herein lies the rub.

Atabrine was being manufactured by IG Farben, a German company with huge interests in the American pharmaceutical industry that was subsequently tried for a range of war crimes after World War II. During World War II, they continued, with  the help of American companies Sterling and Winthrop, to produce Atabrine for American troops. Farben produced the drug, but it was sold by the American companies, who labelled it "Made in America".

What ultimately conspired, according to The Strange Case of Atabrine, a post which I found buried on a website belonging to the UC Telecommunications Company, shows that biological warfare can be carried out on the enemy by restricting the supply of a prophylactic.

Farben-Sterling Winthrop used its patents on Atabrine to restrict the production of the remedy after Japan cut off supplies of quinine from the Dutch East Indies. According to Treason's Peace: German Dyes and American Dupes, by Howard Watson Ambruster, the Senate Committee on Patents was barred from discussing Farben tie-ups with Sterling or Winthrop and "voted not to permit its Chairman, and its two-fisted incorruptible counsel, Creekmore Fath, to produce a single witness, or document, relating to Sterling and Winthrop at a public hearing."

In this context, the menacing sign in the photograph speaks volumes. Perhaps "These Men Didn't take their Atabrine" because there was none.

Sign posted at the 363rd Station Hospital, Phillipines ,1945.
National Museum of Health and Medicine. (see www.flickr.com/photos/medicalmuseum/302821131)