Around the world, an estimated 700,000 people die every year thanks to counterfeit medicines, and up to 1 in 3 medicines sold worldwide may be counterfeit or otherwise defective. The counterfeit medicine industry is a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide, with anti-malarial and anti-HIV/AIDS drugs the most common to be counterfeited.
Fake medicines can kill either passively, by not treating the condition they are intended to treat, or actively, if they have been deliberately or accidentally contaminated by a poisonous or harmful substance. For example, last year at least 34 children in Nigeria were killed by a batch of counterfeit teething medicine that contained antifreeze. Counterfeit drugs containing small but insufficient doses of the drug they are intended to copy also threaten future public health by encouraging disease organisms to develop resistance to the drug. Drug resistance is already a problem with certain diseases such as tuberculosis, MRSA, and malaria, and counterfeit medicines can speed the development of resistance.
A new social enterprise named Sproxil is aiming to end the scourge of counterfeit medicines in the developing world with cell phone technology.
How Sproxil Works
Founded by Ashifi Gogo, a native of Ghana, Sproxil hopes to incorporate a scratch-off authentication label into the packaging of all drugs sold in the developing world. When a drug is sold, the consumer can send a free text message to a number posted on the label, and within seconds, he or she will receive a message authenticating the drug or warning that it is fake.
Sproxil recently underwent a successful trial in Nigeria, which has 70,000,000 cell phone users, the highest number in Africa, and is also known as a center of the counterfeit drug trade. In 2008, a survey found that an estimated 80% of all drugs sold in Lagos, the biggest city in Nigeria, were counterfeit. Attempts to bring the situation under control, though they ultimately succeeded in reducing the percentage to an estimated 16%, were met with vandalism, death threats, fire bombs, and even an assassination attempt.
Sproxil hope to defuse this dangerous situation, and others like it around the world, by, in effect, crowd-sourcing pharmaceutical inspections.
This benefits the drug companies, who do not need to worry about their brand being diluted by ineffective or poisonous fake medicines, the consumers, who do not need to worry about purchasing ineffective or fake medicines, and law enforcement, who are able to track “fake drug” text messages in an area and can make targeted pharmacy inspections instead of relying on inefficient random sampling. (The tracking is done anonymously in order ot protect the privacy of the consumer and reduce danger to him or her from counterfeiters. Sproxil also believes that the technology will benefit telecom companies, by encouraging more consumers to purchase cell phones.
Sproxil is a for-profit social enterprise and the service is supported with fees from drug companies and consulting. In the future Sproxil may also offer analytics services and delivery of targeted ads with each authentication text message. In the future, Sproxil also hopes to target counterfeit cell phones and counterfeit CDs and DVDs.