Countering the Counterfeiters with mHealth Technology

Countering the Counterfeiters with mHealth Technology

Cross-posted from the K4Health Blog.

As the mHealth Summit gets underway this week in the Washington D.C. area amid thousands of mHealth projects taking shape around the world, one particular mobile activity is saving lives by helping to ensure that the contents of medicines match their labels.

The Problem:

According to a  2010 World Health Organization Fact Sheet, it is difficult to estimate the percentage of counterfeit medicines in circulation—WHO cites estimates in industrialized countries at about 1%, and adds that “many African countries, and in parts of Asia, Latin America, and countries in transition, a much higher percentage” of the medicines on sale may be falsely labeled or counterfeit.

Earlier WHO estimates from 2003 cite “up to 25% of the medicines consumed in poor countries are counterfeit or substandard” and many of them are used to treat life-threatening conditions such as malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS.

The Solution:

To counter this public health challenge, one venture-backed social enterprise company, Sproxil, developed an innovative mobile solution which relies on two technologies that are widespread in the developing world: text messaging and scratch-off labels.

Scratch off technology is familiar to many consumers who use it to top up their mobile phone accounts. Before buying a Sproxil-verified medication, the consumer scratches off the label to reveal a unique 12 digit number, then texts it to a free number. Seconds later, a response comes back from Sproxil’s computer servers. If the text message is an approval, the medication is real and the customer buys it. If not, she/he can report the fake.

The solution requires no capital investment for the end user; instead, Sproxil partners with pharmaceutical companies who pay to use the verification service for their products. This gives pharmaceutical companies secure brand protection and end users a way to authenticate products.

WHO calculates that 200,000 deaths caused by malaria alone could be prevented if all antimalarials sold were genuine. Sproxil recently announced a partnership with Greenlife Pharmaceutical Limited, a Nigeria-based distributor for prescription medications, and Bliss GVS Pharma Limited, an India-based pharmaceutical manufacturing company – two companies which produce the anti-malarial drug, LONART. So far, more than 10,000 people have already authenticated their LONART purchases through Sproxil’s services. Sproxil is also teaming up with a Kenyan telecommunication network, Safaricom, to introduce its services in East Africa.

Benefits for Donors and Foundations:

The Sproxil web site includes a wealth of information about counterfeit drugs and the benefits of its service and products to consumers, industry, regulators, telecoms, and foundations and donors. It has an online portal which allows donors and development partners to track their donated medicines, mosquito nets, and other high-value items right from their work desks, as a chart or overlaid on a map. Donors can also sponsor text messages reminding patients when they should be taking their drugs. This helps solve drug adherence problems and quality problems at the same time.

This simple mHealth initiative may not be as intricate or sophisticated as some others featured at this week’s mHealth conference, but its consumer-centered focus will no doubt have a wide impact on saving lives by countering counterfeit medicines.

Stephen M. Goldstein is a Senior Consultant to the Knowledge for Health (K4Health) Project.