With easy access to mhealth solutions, consumers can help fight the dangerous effects of counterfeit drugs.
As long as the demand for medicines remains infinite, the World Health Organization (WHO) believes drugs will be attractive for counterfeiting. Although drug counterfeiting is a global phenomenon according to INTERPOL, the high rate of poverty in Africa will always make the continent attractive to drug counterfeiters—both for production and as a target market.
Within Africa, a report by the International Policy Network revealed that about 50% of drugs sold in Ghana, Nigeria, Angola, Burundi, and the Congo are not original.
The report also said antimalarial drugs are the most counterfeited. This is quite predictable since malaria ranks high among the leading causes of death, killing about 800,000 people in Africa in 2012 alone.
Concerning the global burden of counterfeit drugs, Africa is also the worst hit, recording about 700,000 deaths annually from fake drugs.
In recent times, the governments of Ghana and Nigeria have deployed similar strategies in the fight.
The most popular approach has been the regular confiscation and destruction of fake drugs worth several millions of dollars (US Dollars). During a recent exercise in the southeastern part of Nigeria, fake drugs worth about US$1 million were publicly destroyed by officials of Nigeria’s National Agency for Food, Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC).
These efforts by the Nigerian regulatory agency have been extensively commended by relevant international organizations, including the WHO.
However, fake drugs are still available on the market—necessitating the deployment of additional strategies, according to Dr. Paul B. Orhii, the Director General of NAFDAC. The agency deployed several technologies—including Truscan, Black Eye and the Radio Frequency Identification system—with varying degrees of success.
The most successful, however, has been a partnership with mobile startup Sproxil.
This resulted in the introduction of the Mobile Authentication Service (MAS), which is described as the world’s first SMS-based anti-counterfeiting service.
Developed by Ashifi Gogo, a Ghanaian, MAS is leveraging on the rapidly growing mobile penetration rate in Africa—which in December 2013 stood at 80%. The service was originally intended for the organic food industry, but he told Reuters that he decided to tweak his innovation to help Nigeria and Ghana in their fight against fake drugs.
The service has now become widely accepted.
All pharmaceutical companies operating in both countries are required by the respective regulatory agencies to deploy MAS technology to protect citizens from suffering from the harmful effects of taking fake drugs.
This is how the technology works.
When manufacturers package their drugs, they incorporate a scratch card on the pack. When an individual buys the drug, he or she can then scratch the card to see a set of numbers. To confirm whether the purchased drug is original or fake, the buyer sends the figures, free of charge, via SMS to a short code (38353 in Nigeria) that works on all telecoms networks. An immediate response is received confirming the genuineness of the drug. If the drug is counterfeit, the buyer will also be informed and instructed regarding next steps.
The technology is successfully helping the regulatory agencies to track down individuals that are selling fake drugs, and in a number of cases they have been able to identify the manufacturers.
The success of the initiative in Nigeria led to its adoption and incorporation into Ghana’s healthcare system as well.
While the service is more popular among users that can scratch and read, regulatory agencies believe that if just one person out of all those that patronize a pharmacy that sells fake drugs knows that the genuineness of the drug is in doubt, the entire community that patronizes the pharmacy can be protected.
Nigeria’s NAFDAC admits that MAS’ mhealth solution alone may not be the intervention that can entirely put an end to counterfeit drugs in the country. However, it notes that—unlike the previous scenario—citizens who cannot see any noticeable difference in the packaging of fake and original drugs now have a free medium to obtain confirmation and actively contribute to ending the scourge of counterfeit drugs.
Paul Adepoju is a medical scientist, published author and award-winning Nigeria-based freelance journalist with expertise in various genres of writing including health and technology. He is the managing editor of HealthNewsNG.com Africa’s leading health news platform, and is a correspondent for several international media organisations. He holds a master’s degree in cell biology and genetics, a diploma in legal studies, and is currently studying the dynamics of latent and active tuberculosis genetics for PhD. He speaks regularly at major African health and technology events including NigeriaCom and Nigeria eHealth Forum.