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Fake malaria drugs might soon be spotted, thanks to handheld device

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A simple handheld device could soon thwart the growing scourge of fake and diluted antimalarial drugs in Africa and Asia. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today announced plans to manufacture the device, called CD-3, and then deploy it to Ghana for preliminary tests.

Estimates suggest that malaria, a mosquito-borne illness, kills upwards of 650,000 people each year — with 90 percent of those fatalities occurring in Africa. And counterfeit medication in regions heavily affected by the illness continues to grow more common, with some research indicating that up to one-third of antimalarial drugs in Southeast Asia and Africa are either phony or don't contain enough active ingredients to treat the illness.

Malaria can be deadly within days after symptoms first appear

Malaria can be deadly within days after symptoms first appear, making counterfeit drugs all the more dangerous. But weak drugs pose an additional risk: when exposed to small quantities of medication, the malaria parasite can start to develop resistance — exacerbating the illness' spread through a community. All the while, the drugs generate millions in revenue for criminal outfits, who've developed increasingly sophisticated packaging to disguise phonies.

"In the early days, it was quite easy to tell the fake from true because the hologram[s] were really badly done and very rough, and you could see straight away that it was fake," Stephane Proux, who investigates the issue in Thailand, told NPR. "They are champion counterfeiters, those guys. They are really, really well-crafted holograms."

With any luck, CD-3 will be able to trump them

With any luck, CD-3 will be able to trump them: the device, which relies on battery power, emits 10 different wavelengths of light to pinpoint counterfeits. Once a product is scanned, the device compares it to stored images of legitimate medication, in an effort to detect subtle differences in packaging, tablet color, and other characteristics that can't be spotted by the naked eye. CD-3 is already used by FDA officials scanning imports of myriad products, including cosmetics and food.