The numbers of "seriously potent" anabolic steroids seized after being illegally imported into Ireland more than doubled last year to 204,843 units, while a further 56,385 units of medicines sold as Covid-19 treatments were seized.
This annual review of detained illegal medicines found altogether 1.6m units — tablets, capsules, vials — through collaboration between the Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA), gardaí and Revenue’s custom service.
In 2018, that stood at just 619,213 dosage units. Grainne Power, HPRA’s director of compliance, said the total has increased steadily for the last five years.
“It’s so important that members of the public are aware of the health risks associated with buying prescription-only products from unverified and unregulated sources,” she said.
There are risks of unexpected side-effects, and also that the medicine does not contain the ingredients listed on the website, she said.
Referring to anabolic steroids specifically, she said they were a “seriously potent group of medicines” and were typically imported to be used for body enhancement.
“They would never be prescribed by a doctor for that reason,” she said. “That medicine may have other things within in too. It is a product of criminality.”
Ms Power said in many cases they find people selling these products into Ireland using a fake website name, adding a “.ie” ending to fool customers into thinking this is a reputable source.
Last year 461 websites, e-commerce listings, or social media pages were amended or shut-down. She warned almost all tablets or vials seized did not come with instructions or did not have English instructions.
“There is no product information,” Ms Power said. “The only dose indicated might be the foil on the blister, and you are taking that on trust.”
This is different to an Irish person on holidays in Spain who buys medication from a pharmacist, she explained, saying there are “huge risks” to buying from unknown entities.
Among the medications on display at a launch for the review were boxes of Ivermectin, with 28,302 tablets seized last year. This is an anti-parasitic agent to treat head lice or scabies and as a deworming treatment for horses.
Following a rise in social media speculation around its alleged use as a Covid-19 treatment, manufacturers MSD/Merck published a statement saying its analysis found “no scientific basis for a potential therapeutic effect against Covid-19 from pre-clinical studies”.
Ms Power said they “suspect” people were buying this as a Covid-19 treatment as they had not seen such large quantities coming through illegal channels before.
The number of sedatives found, including sleeping tablets, rose to 741,492. However, seizures of erectile dysfunction treatments dropped to 103,816 units from 484,856 in 2020, following one significant find in 2020 which increased those numbers.
People whose address is on seized medicines are contacted and are given the chance to explain why they need it. However, suppliers or people purchasing with the intent to supply can be prosecuted, Ms Power said.
Last year, five prosecutions were initiated including three for unauthorised supply of anabolic steroids, one for sildenafil citrate (treatment for male impotence) and one for products sold from a market stall.