Counterfeit Viagra (search), antibiotics and other drugs are on the rise in Europe, leading international pharmaceutical and health care experts said, blaming insufficient cross-border cooperation.

Meeting at a three-day conference organized by the Council of Europe, government officials, law enforcement officers, doctors and pharmaceutical experts from Europe and the United States called Thursday for tighter criminal legislation, better public awareness campaigns and a central point for collecting information on fake drugs.

They warned that the rise in counterfeit medicines could undermine patients' confidence in public health care.

"It is worrying that there is no recognized central reference point in Europe entrusted with surveillance, trend analysis and policy recommendations in the field of counterfeit medicines," said Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, deputy secretary general of the Council of Europe, the continent's leading human rights body.

"This situation helps the counterfeiters, who can rely on international cooperation gaps in Europe," she said. "Even when they are caught, they far too often get away with administrative fines with no deterrent effect."

Counterfeit medicines make up approximately 10 percent of the European pharmaceutical market — up from close to zero 10 years ago — and often are supplied by international criminal rings, the World Health Organization says.

In Russia, some 20 percent of all drugs distributed are fake, while in Mexico it is 40 percent and in Nigeria as much as 80 percent, Council of Europe and WHO statistics show.

Counterfeit medicines often are packaged like the genuine product and are hard to detect. Lifestyle drugs, such as Viagra, and essential medicines such as antibiotics and insulin are particularly popular with counterfeiters, but there's also an increasing number of fake contact lenses and even materials such as surgical mesh.

Experts warned that purchasing health products over the Internet poses a major health risk as such drugs often have not been approved by a competent health authority.

A study conducted by the U.S. General Accounting Office in 2004 showed that four out of 21 medicines ordered from Web sites outside the United States or Canada were fake.

"Patients using these services are at risk of receiving medicines which are counterfeit, out of date or unidentifiable for lack of proper packaging," said Jean Parrot, President of the International Pharmaceutical Federation (search).

The conference, which runs through Friday, focuses on identifying ways to detect fake drugs (search), combating distribution and drawing up guidelines to protect the public. Representatives of the European Commission, the European Patent Office and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration were attending the meeting.

Fred Fricke, director of the Forensic Chemistry Center at the FDA (search), highlighted a recent case: Two former employees of pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson set up their own business in India and were producing fake, non-sterile surgical mesh and distributing it to a number of hospitals in the United States.