September 9th, 2011
04:00 PM ET

How cell phones can expose counterfeit drugs

Editor’s Note: Dr. Ashifi Gogo is the CEO of Sproxil, a company that uses cell phones to protect against counterfeit drugs. This post is part of the Global Innovation Showcase created by the New America Foundation and the Global Public Square.

By Ashifi Gogo – Special to CNN

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), up to 30 percent of drugs sold in developing nations are counterfeit and the World Customs Organization estimates that the counterfeit drug market is $200 billion per year. In addition, up to 50 percent of some medicines in specific developing countries, including Nigeria and Pakistan, are substandard. These substandard drugs, which do not have the correct potency, can lead to a significant healthcare crisis both in terms of number of deaths (700,000 deaths from fake malaria and TB drugs alone, according to an IPN Report) and in terms of spurring drug-resistant diseases. In Ghana, local authorities working with the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) discovered fake or substandard versions of thirteen vital anti-malarial drugs spread across multiple locations in the country.

To get a sense of the scale of the problem, take a look at India, with several thousand drug manufacturing companies. Given the explosive growth in the Indian pharmaceutical market over the past several years, effectively regulating numerous manufacturing companies can get very challenging, especially if many of them do not have several decades of experience making drugs. Even worse, as we saw in Nigeria, fake drugs manufactured outside India were labeled “Made in India,” directly damaging India’s brand with one of its largest trade partners in Africa.

With just a text message, Sproxil solves this problem.

We allow consumers to verify that the product they are buying is genuine by using a mobile phone and a simple, free text message. Other solutions like chemical tests are too expensive for consumers in emerging markets.  As with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, these other methods require prohibitively expensive setups. By contrast, Sproxil uses scratch card technology that has been common in developing nations for the last decade. Consumers merely use a scratch-off panel on the medication to identify a unique PIN, text the PIN to Sproxil’s number and receive a response on the authenticity of the drug right on their cell phone.

Read: Bendable electronics will revolutionize healthcare.

To date, Sproxil has already sold millions of anti-counterfeit labels in Nigeria and has set up the first national mobile-based anti-counterfeit service in Africa by working closely with NAFDAC, the Nigerian food and drug administrative body.

In the future, we hope to help governments leverage mobile phone technology to empower patients and beneficiaries to verify that they obtained genuine mosquito nets, vaccines and relief items. We also want to use this technology to give donors better tools for remote monitoring and evaluation of their donations. For example, products like Long Lasting Insecticidal Nets (LLINs) could bear simple tags that allow end-users to confirm receipt of a donation with a basic cell phone. This would provide donors with a record that their relief efforts are bringing benefits to the intended groups and not being funneled into accounts controlled by corrupt elements or criminals.

Read: Innovations in access to finance.

With the aggressive adoption of mobile telephony, consumers are back in the game, even in developing nations. Technologists worldwide have worked tirelessly to make communications affordable. Today, many poor farmers, rural teachers and fearless fishermen in tiny canoes have cell phones for various reasons – to check on prices at the market before the harvest, to provide distance education support and to figure out which shore to dock at to get the best prices for fresh fish while still at sea. With affordable communications, new ways abound in providing consumers with information decision support, even at the point of purchase. Sproxil makes this possible with medications. Such an intersection of pharmaceuticals and technology holds promise in helping consumers make the right decision – a decision that can change their lives or the lives of their loved ones.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Ashifi Gogo. Read more from the Global Innovation Showcase created in partnership with the New America Foundation.

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Topics: Africa • Health • Innovation

soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. Jonas

    This article creates the impression that the author created this system. It is likely to miseducate readers who are not aware of the older and well established mpedigree system in Ghana.

    September 9, 2011 at 7:10 pm | Reply
  2. nadinejones

    I learnt from "Penny Health" that Instead, try saying, "There's medically necessary treatment that I'm seeking." Remember, words have power and insurers are all about finding limitations and exclusions if you say the wrong thing.

    September 10, 2011 at 6:49 am | Reply
  3. chidi Ihebuzo

    Dr Gogo and his team in Nigeria have save millions of lives from counterfeit Medication.It is a revolution by any standard. As for mpidegree we yet. To see their existence in Nigeria. I am a pharmacist working in rural shop I know first hand the impact of Sproxil on the landscape of Nigeria health system

    September 10, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Reply
  4. chibuzo ekwe

    Chidi, your exagerations does your claims no good. Even here in Ikeja, Lagos, the overwhelming majority of users have never heard of this gogo or his sproxil. I work for a Transparency Network and we know what the Aondoakaa disciple has done to nafdac and we are watching closely how underhand machinations are helping this gogo to reap credit where he has not sown. They can do all the pr they want but those of us who understand the health sector in Nigeria are not deceived at all. We know how the gsm anticounterfeiting started and in good time we will see the genuine providers and the sham ones. It is not cnn that will decide.

    September 10, 2011 at 8:12 pm | Reply
  5. chidi Ihebuzo

    Mr ekwe I hope you are not a counterfeiter. I agree chidi like most helpless Nigerian patient that Sproxil service is reducing the sale of fake drugs and everybody can see it except perhaps people of your clan. This is a risky war but Sproxil should not be discouraged.Agents of the status quo we know will fight back.There is a silent alert now that counterfeiters are sponsoringh a proxy service provider to disrupt this Gog and Sproxil. This is the time that NAFDAC, th MOH and Gog0 should be eternally vigalent.If Gogo and Sproxil will end this monster of fake drugs so be it.

    September 11, 2011 at 1:06 am | Reply
  6. chidi Ihebuzo

    Mr ekwe I hope you are not a counterfeiter. I agree chidi like most helpless Nigerian patient that Sproxil service is reducing the sale of fake drugs and everybody can see it except perhaps people of your clan. This is a risky war but Sproxil should not be discouraged.Agents of the status quo we know will fight back.There is a silent alert now that counterfeiters are sponsoringh a proxy service provider to disrupt this Gog and Sproxil. This is the time that NAFDAC, th MOH and Gog0 should be eternally vigalent.If Gogo and Sproxil will end this monster of fake drugs so be it.
    My sister was a victim of fake drug and in the house 4 hours after. My aunty'b baby died at springs clinic mushin in 2004 from what doctord admitted was injection despite the noisy by Akuyili then nothing came out of it.Many others died without anybody knowing ity was as a result of Paki or fake.ekwe please join nafdac and Gogo to save lives. MAS has come repent if you a faker. May wants to save Nigeria now from fake medications.segun okunola, Bariga, Lagos

    September 11, 2011 at 1:25 am | Reply
  7. Kwesi Adadevoh

    Mpedigree was also created by Dr Gogo as a test run for Sproxil. His former partner now runs Mpedigree which uses the old approach on which Sproxil has now innovated.

    July 23, 2012 at 5:46 am | Reply
  8. Christopher Makuch

    In addition to telephony, modern mobile phones also support a wide variety of other services such as text messaging, MMS, email, Internet access, short-range wireless communications (infrared, Bluetooth), business applications, gaming and photography. Mobile phones that offer these and more general computing capabilities are referred to as smartphones.:

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    April 28, 2013 at 7:08 am | Reply

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