Seizures of medications linked to pandemic on rise

The Australian Border Force (ABF) is warning Australians against importing prohibited substances, which they believe could protect against COVID-19.

ABF officers are screening medical supplies coming into Australia and have seen a significant spike in detections of the herbal medicine Ephedra and Hydroxychloroquine used to treat malaria and auto-immune conditions such as Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, minimal quantities of Ephedra were seen at the border with the ABF detecting two kilograms of the drug in the first three months of 2020. As the pandemic continues to evolve, the ABF has seen a significant spike with officers detecting over 66 kilograms of the drug in April and May alone.

Ephedra, a plant species often used in traditional Chinese medicine, is believed by some to be able to ease the symptoms of COVID-19. Ephedra however, is a prohibited import as it is a precursor to making Ephedrine, which can be used to manufacture the drug methamphetamine or ‘ice’.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) says Ephedra poses a health risk. The use of Ephedra has been linked to serious adverse effects including high blood pressure, heart attacks, muscle disorders, seizures, strokes and death.

Ephedra extract is a prohibited import and a border controlled precursor under the Criminal code S 307.11(1). Importing the substance carries a maximum penalty for an individual of 25 years’ imprisonment and/or a fine not exceeding $1,110,000.

Furthermore, ABF officers have also seized more than 26,000 tablets of Hydroxychloroquine and Chloroquine between 1 January 2020 and 21 June 2020. Unauthorised importations are referred to the TGA for assessment.

The TGA has warned that Hydroxychloroquine poses serious risks to patients, including cardiac toxicity (potentially leading to sudden heart attacks), irreversible eye damage and severe depletion of blood sugar (potentially leading to coma). The TGA strongly discourages the use of hydroxychloroquine outside of its registered indications which are for the treatment of auto-immune conditions and malaria.

ABF Assistant Commissioner, Port Operations Command, Erin Dale is warning people against importing and self-prescribing Ephedra and Hydroxychloroquine.

“There are serious health risks associated with taking medication that has not been prescribed for you by a medical health professional. It is illegal to bring these substances into Australia without the proper permits and I strongly urge Australians against importing these items,” Assistant Commissioner Dale said.

“Every day, ABF officers are on the lookout for these medications and when they are found, they will be seized at the border.”

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