This article is inspired by the work of BBC Panorama in shedding a light into the unknown world of online pharmacies. The documentary, available now on BBC iPlayer, explores how some UK-based pharmacy websites are contracting Romanian doctors to authorise prescriptions. Such doctors are not regulated by the CQC (Care Quality Commision) and are often paid per accepted prescription, putting money over patient welfare.
As a result, anyone can browse the web and order prescription-only drugs and receive them in the post within 24 hours. All an individual needs to do is complete an online questionnaire about their medical history – this is not cross-checked with NHS records.
Considering what we now know about Lariam, the brand name for Mefloquine, I was intrigued to know whether similar websites would be selling the drug. And so I set out on my voyage to uncover which websites stock the drug, that is known to cause long-term neuropsychiatric side effects. Here’s what I found.
Superdrug Online Doctor
Due to ‘more severe side effects than other malaria tablets’, Superdrug no longer stocks Lariam. When I spoke to their customer services, the sales agent thought that there may have been a lack of stock or distribution issues. However, upon checking the system, the drug has indeed been replaced by ‘safer alternatives’, including Malarone, doxycycline and chloroquine.
The company makes a big point about the individuals who shouldn’t take the drug. On their product page, they say that:
Lariam is not suitable for travellers with a history of mental health problems or seizures. It is not to be taken during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.
UKMeds appeared on the BBC Panorama documentary. The company has worked with celebrity doctor Dr Christian Jessen and stocks Lariam. The website offers an online consultation where patients are asked to enter their medical history. This information is then passed onto the doctor. UKMeds contract prescription approval to doctors from Romania where they are not regulated by the CQC.
Doctors are normally paid between £5 to £10 per accepted prescription, meaning that they are incentivised to approve them.
The online pharmacy Dr Felix stocks Lariam. The company, based in the UK and registered with the General Pharmaceutical Council, offers 8 tablets for £26.99 (price correct at time of writing). Individuals can buy the drug after a two-minute online questionnaire.
It’s important to note that the button to buy the drugs appears significantly higher than the listed side effects, which can only be accessed by clicking a dedicated tab. They also promote other treatment options at the bottom of the page, such as Malarone, Chloroquine and Doxycycline – the same alternatives that Superdrug promotes.
Upon telephoning their customer sales, the representative assured me that all prescriptions are approved by UK Doctors.
Dr Fox also stocks Lariam, but is keen to point out that the drug can cause serious mental issues in some people’. When scrolling down to the caution section, the website says that
Some people may experience agitation, nightmares, poor sleep and other psychiatric or psychological symptoms.
Like many of these sites, individuals must complete an online questionnaire before ordering the drug. When I spoke to customer services, the representative told me that the answers are not cross-referenced with NHS records, but that they advise that customers do inform their GP of any prescriptions that they have received through Dr Fox.
They also have a page where patients can fill out their GP information and Dr Fox will send through a letter to them, detailing which drugs have been purchased.
With the internet offering a more convenient way to purchase prescription drugs and prescriptions being approved by European doctors, could money be put before patient welfare? The BBC Panorama documentary discusses this ethical debate in further detail and speaks to representatives from the CQC and General Pharmaceutical Council.