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.
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.
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.