New research conducted by Pfizer and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society reveals that more and more people are turning to illegal and unlicensed online sites to purchase prescription medication.

The UK-based survey found that of the 650 pharmacists questioned, 50% said they have customers who admit to buying medicines online.

This new data coincides with the release of other statistics by Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which reveal that in the past five years the agency has seized more than £34m worth of illegally supplied medicine.

MHRA believe online pharmacies are on the increase.

Several recent raids carried out under Operation Pangea, the results of which were released by the MHRA last month, show that 2.3 million doses of unlicensed medicines were seized by the MHRA in conjunction with the UK Border Force.

This includes 68,000 doses of counterfeit medicines.

In addition, more than 384 websites were suspended in the UK and a further 120 domain names were shut down

Neal Patel of the RPS said; "These are worrying statistics and it’s clear from our members that patients are still unaware of the potential risks associated with purchasing medicines online from unregulated or unverified websites.

"Some of these illegal sites are very professional and look like legitimate online pharmacies, but to supply dangerous fakes or unlicensed medicines that have serious health implications. Our advice is clear; always buy medicines in person or online from a genuine UK bricks and mortar based pharmacy."

This new research was conducted as part of the Real Danger partnership campaign with the MHRA, The Patients Association, The Men’s Health Forum (MHF) and Heart UK, which aims to educate people about the risks of buying prescription medicines online through unregulated channels without a prescription.

Further results from the survey revealed that 85% of pharmacists believe that buying online medicines puts patient’s health at risk and 73% believe this problem has become more common in recent years.

Furthermore, 56% of pharmacists believe that people buy prescription medicines online because they are too embarrassed to go to their GP or because they feel they can get hold of medication quicker, while 76% of pharmacists feel there has been an increase in people bypassing the healthcare system to self-diagnose and then self-medicate.

Dr Berkeley Phillips, Medical Director at Pfizer said; "The harsh reality is that unlicensed or fake medicines, easily accessible online, can contain harmful ingredients such as arsenic. They are often produced by people with no appropriate qualifications and can contain no pharmaceutical ingredients at all.

"Some fake medicines can contain totally different ingredients to the labelled active ingredients, some of which may interact with other medications, exacerbate other ailments or simply be toxic."

As part of the Real Danger campaign a educational video has been released to reinforce the potential dangers of buying prescription medicines online.

Image: A UK survey of 650 pharmacists found that 50% had customers who admitted buying prescription medicines online. Photo: Courtesy of Josef Zemanek.