Health authorities in NSW have issued a warning about counterfeit anti-anxiety drugs as the Australian Border Force vows to seize and destroy any such tablets being sent to the country.
The alert relates to alprazolam – a benzodiazepine used for the short-term treatment of anxiety and panic disorders.
The NSW health department said the packaging and tablets are “cleverly copied” to look like prescription pharmaceutical brands.
“The counterfeit products are labelled with the brand names ‘Xanax’ or ‘Mylan’ which are not sold through pharmacies in Australia,” it said in a statement on Thursday.
“There are also reports of counterfeit versions of the Australian brand, ‘Kalma’ 2mg.”
The NSW Poisons Information Centre advises a number of products expected to be alprazolam have instead tested positive for etizolam, an unregistered benzodiazepine medication.
Other drugs have also been detected in the fake products.
“These can be extremely harmful,” the centre said in a statement on Thursday afternoon.
Clinical director, Professor Andrew Dawson, said calls to the poison information hotline about alprazolam had doubled “just in the past two months”.
In December 2019, the centre had recently seen four people where etizolam use had been associated with serious harm.
“Etizolam can cause unexpected side effects and may result in prolonged drowsiness,” it said.
Anyone who has purchased a tablet online or from the street and is experiencing side effects is urged to call triple-0 immediately or seek urgent medical attention.
Signs of overdose include difficulty or slowed breathing, lack of consciousness and seizures.
Those who suspect their medication is counterfeit should stop using it and take the packaging and any remaining tablets to a local pharmacy for safe disposal.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration has investigated reports of counterfeit alprazolam in community circulation, in conjunction with health authorities in NSW and Queensland.
The supply of counterfeit alprazolam 2mg tablets or counterfeit Kalma 2 tablets in Australia is illegal and the TGA is working with the Australian Border Force to stop any future shipments.
“If these tablets are found at the border by the ABF they will be seized and destroyed,” the regulatory authority says, noting they pose a “serious” health risk and should not be taken.
In June 2020, it said its testing found attempted counterfeits of genuine products in the international and Australian markets.
Some were missing distinguishing features such as AUST R numbers showing the product is included in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods.
“Undeclared substances that may be present include etizolam, cyproheptadine, promethazine, Flubromazepam, amantadine and MMTMP,” the TGA said.
It advised consumers that some of these are prescription-only, controlled or prohibited substances, therefore making possession of the counterfeit tablets illegal.
The TGA has advised customers to “exercise extreme caution” when purchasing medicines from unknown overseas internet sites.