By Jan Chaiken and Marcia Chaiken
The production and distribution of drugs is one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy in Mexico. Media in the United States and some other countries would have you believe that illegal drugs are the backbone of the Mexican economy. But in this article we are talking about life-saving and life-enhancing pharmaceuticals produced in Mexico, based on the cutting edge of medical knowledge.
Chemists in Mexico have long played a pivotal role in the development of modern day medications. Mexico scientists in collaboration with a U.S. Chemist, Russell Marker, took the lead in research and development of steroid hormones in the 1950s when a species of Mexican yam was discovered to contain compositions that could be used to produce progesterone. Syntex, the Mexican pharmaceutical company that originally supported steroid R&D, was bought out by a Swiss pharmaceutical giant in 1994 for over 5 billion US dollars.
Economists reported that the pharmaceutical market in Mexico had reached over $11 billion dollars in 2010 and was projected to reach $22.5 billion by 2020. Key companies in the industry are known and respected around the world including Pfizer Inc, GlaxoSmithKline Plc, and Sanofi-Aventis SA (first, second, and third largest pharmaceutical companies in the world) and Eli Lilly and Company (9th largest in the world). Within Mexico, another major company is Bayer, recently selected as most trustworthy in a survey of doctors in Mexico conducted by Anahuac University.
Medications are legally dispensed in chains of pharmacies that have stores in many locations (such as Farmacias del Ahorro and Farmacias de Similares), local pharmacies, and large retail outlets such as Wal-Mart, Comercial Mexicana, Gigante, Soriana, and Chedraui (including Super Che). For the foreign visitor, the experience of buying medications in Mexico is in some ways very familiar and in some ways, well, foreign.
First, the visitor will find that some medications easily purchased over-the-counter in their own country are simply unavailable for legal purchase anywhere in Mexico. In our experience, this included antihistamine tablets that contain the ingredients of Benadryl (available in Mexico only as a liquid suspension, normally packaged for children) and decongestants such as pseudoephedrine HCl (only available in Mexico as an ingredient in combination tablets for cough and cold). Second, the visitor will rapidly learn that many medications behind the counter can be purchased just by asking, no questions asked.
Third, the visitor will discover that different pharmacies have widely different products available, at widely varying prices, and getting the medication you want may be a matter of negotiation or hunting around. In Mexico, the pharmaceutical companies do not sell products directly to pharmacies; they sell to distributors which in turn sell to pharmacies. Normally any particular pharmacy will only work with one distributor and will have a large tome at hand, listing what can be purchased. When pharmacists tell you a certain medication is unavailable, they may mean that it is not in stock at the moment or that it is not listed in the distributor’s book. If it is not in the store but is listed in the distributor’s book, you can normally buy it if you can wait a few days and leave a deposit (normally the full price). If it is not in the distributor’s book that does not mean you can’t buy it in Mexico – you now need to undertake a bit of research.
Your first step in looking for your drug is to find out the name of the medication in Mexico. Most pharmacists know enough English to help you find a drug name that is just a translation (for example, we can all figure out what crema hidrocortisona is.) But the distributor’s big tome lists medications alphabetically by brand name, which is quite unlikely to be exactly what you expect. So, even though you may know the generic name of the medication that is not going to help you very much because the pharmacists will only find the generic name after they have found the brand name. (We are talking about a paper book here.)
Fortunately, the internet has come to your rescue. There are websites such as: http://www.farmacopedia.com.mx/medicamentos-A.html that list all medications available in Mexico by their brand name and show the generic name, the company that manufactures the medication in Mexico, what it can be used for, and the mode by which it works. The website list is electronic and not paper, and therefore, you can search for whatever you want. Since the English-speaking readers of The Eye are not typical customers here, pharmacists don’t seem to feel any need to use this exceptionally handy website. But you, armed with the Spanish name of the drug, the brand name, and the manufacturer’s name, have a good chance of being able to buy what you want.
Another useful electronic document is provided by the mexican government: http://www.imss.gob.mx/transparencia/CuadrosBasicos/Documents/CBM.pdf
This site lists medications in categories, such as analgesic or dermatologic. Within each group are listed all available medications in Mexico, together with generic names, physical description (such as tableta, polvo, or crema), what the medication is indicated for, and side effects and warnings. Each dosage and form of administration (such as injectable solution, 60mg) is shown with a code number that surely would enable you to order it at a pharmacy. Some categories of drugs are peculiar to Mexico. These include the similares, literally copy-cat drugs. While a generic drug is supposedly identical to the brand name drug whose patent has expired, similares are drugs that are sufficiently different from a brand-name drug to be sold for substantially less, and they work sort-of the same. The best advice we can give readers of this magazine is: you don’t need them, don’t buy them. Drugs like these are one reason that the United States forbids bringing across the border to the US any drugs manufactured in Mexico.
According to Business Monitor International there is also a thriving black market for medications. In addition to undermining the future development of Mexico’s pharmaceutical industry, black market distributors may also be selling drugs of unknown quality and composition including copy-cat drugs. There is not only a high tolerance for these unregulated pharmacies within Mexico, but U.S. citizens support the trade by regularly crossing the border to buy their medications in the cut-rate drug stores.
As a visitor to Mexico however, if you find your drug with the same familiar company name (but possibly a slight variant on the brand name) in a regular pharmacy, you can be quite comfortable that you have high quality, safe medication in hand. What about the price? Some brand drugs you will find remarkably less expensive in Mexico than at home. But some drugs that you buy at home as a generic will cost you less at home than in Mexico – this will be the case if only the brand-name drug is sold in Mexico. If you are surprised by the high price and have time to shop around, by all means you should do that. You can also find websites that compare prices of the same drug at different pharmacies – these are normally useful only in large cities where there are many nearby stores to choose from.
The government recognizes the reality that many people in Mexico buy drugs as a form of self-medication – they don’t have the financial resources to have a regular medical checkup (which might lead to some prescriptions) or even to consult a doctor when faced with a possibly serious medical condition. They just go to the pharmacist. The pharmacist is not supposed to tell the customer what medicine to take, nor to sell prescription medications without a prescription (receta), but they do. So the government provides easy-to-read information about what the various medicines do for you, and what are the risks. You will notice that some pharmacies advertise that a physician is on call for a nominal charge. One function provided by those physicians is to write you a prescription if you know exactly what you want – in that case the pharmacist is acting totally within the law.
If you are tempted to self-medicate because you have symptoms tourists commonly experience because of a change in water, temperature, food or too much sun – our advice is “don’t”. We know it’s no fun to spend part of your vacation alone in bed or in the bathroom. But most tourists don’t need a broadband antibiotic or other potent drugs commonly suggested by pharmacists in Mexico. At best, these medications may simply be ineffective; at worst, they can result in serious allergic reactions. Instead, drink plenty of water, cut back on the food and booze, and – if you’re still miserable a couple of days later – ask your hotel or concierge to recommend a doctor. Many MDs in Mexico speak English well and actually make home calls.
Of course, the best is if you don’t have to go to a pharmacy or see a doctor at all while you are here. Soak up some sun and stay healthy.