SINGAPORE - The authorities have seized more than 4,500 units of illegal health products worth $9,000 in an Interpol-coordinated international operation ending last Tuesday (Oct 16).
The Health Sciences Authority (HSA) said on Tuesday that it participated in the 11th edition of Operation Pangea, an international Internet week of action targeting the illegal online sale of counterfeit medicines.
From Oct 9 to last Tuesday, HSA stepped up on surveillance against local websites and seized 4,520 units of illegal health products.
More than 90 per cent of the illegal sales posts detected during the week were weight loss products, promising "quick weight loss" and having "fast fat burner" qualities, among other claims, HSA said.
When tested, the weight loss products were found to contain the banned substance sibutramine and other potent medicinal ingredients.
Sibutramine was previously available as a prescription-only weight loss drug but has been withdrawn from Singapore since 2010.
This was due to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes, as well as other adverse effects such as hallucinations, palpitations and breathlessness.
HSA said that it found 39 different weight loss products that had sibutramine, ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and potent laxatives from 2013 to September.
During the same period , there were five reports of serious adverse events associated with tainted weight loss products.
In these cases, victims reported having hallucinations, breathing difficulties and heart palpitations.
Another group of products seized during the operation was unregistered medicines.
HSA said that it seized 500 modafinil tablets sent to Singapore from sellers overseas.
Modafinil is a prescription medicine that is not registered locally, and self-medicating with it can be harmful, HSA said.
The sale of unregistered health products is an offence, unless authorised by HSA for use by doctors in special circumstances for patients under his care, it added.
Investigations are ongoing.
Modafinil carries a potential risk of dependency due to its stimulant effect on the brain, the statement said.
The drug can also cause serious adverse effects, including heart problems, hypertension and psychiatric conditions, such as anxiety, hallucinations or mania.
Earlier this year, a woman in her 30s was hospitalised for serious skin reactions after taking modafinil to improve her alertness.
She developed Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a life-threatening skin condition with blistering and severe peeling of the skin.
The woman also experienced multiple mouth ulcers and conjunctivitis.
In the statement, HSA advised the public to be cautious when buying health products online.
"It is not certain what these products contain, and where and how they were made. They could potentially be counterfeits or adulterated with undeclared potent or banned ingredients which can seriously harm one's health," HSA said.
The public should also be wary of products that promise or deliver quick results, or those with exaggerated claims.
Products bought online may be cheaper but the lower price could be due to unsafe or inferior ingredients, poor manufacturing methods and unhygienic storage conditions, HSA said.
It added that approved weight loss drugs are available only from a doctor or pharmacist as these are potent medications that should be taken under medical supervision.
The authority said that it takes a serious view against those who engage in the sale and supply of illegal health products and will take strong enforcement action against them.
Those found guilty may be jailed for up to three years and/or fined up to $100,000.
The public is encouraged to contact HSA's enforcement branch on 6866-3485 or e-mail email@example.com if they encounter illegal, counterfeit or other suspicious health products.