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Many people associate piracy with luxury goods – buying imitation Gucci bags from a street vendor or scouring websites to find knock-off designer sunglasses for a fraction of the retail price. While the counterfeit consumer goods trade is a serious concern and costs companies and governments billions of dollars annually, fake Fendis pale in comparison to the devastating effects of counterfeit drugs.
Imagine taking a pill that’s really just a placebo. Or consuming antibiotics that contain only a fraction of the active ingredient, so instead of getting well, you build an immunity to the drug. These scenarios may sound ominous, but they’re all too real, especially in the developing world.
Drug counterfeiting is an estimated $75 billion business in 2010, and fake medications are responsible for at least 700,000 deaths every year. Malaria medication is especially at risk; according to the World Trade Organization, fake malaria drugs kill 100,000 Africans a year.
The good news is that as with so many other aspects of healthcare, technology holds the potential to make a difference and save lives by getting accurate, timely information in the hands of the people who need it. To that end, HP and mPedigree— a social enterprise based in Ghana — have teamed up with pharmaceutical companies to offer a way for patients to check the authenticity of their medicines free of charge, with a basic mobile phone.
The first drugs to use the system –from May & Baker and KAMA Group – are debuting this week in Nigeria and Ghana. HP and mPedigree plan to make the service available for other medications and in more countries in the near future.
How does the system work?
The system from HP and mPedigree assigns a code that is revealed by scratching off a coating on the packaging of participating drugs. This code can be text messaged by the consumer at the point of purchase to a free SMS number to verify the authenticity of the drug.
If the drugs are real, the patient receives a reply of “OK,” along with other information like the expiration date. If the drug packaging contains a counterfeit code, the consumer receives a message alerting them that the pack may be a fake, as well as a phone number to report the incident.
HP is providing the cloud infrastructure—essentially the glue—linking the pharmaceutical companies, telco companies, and mPedigree together to make all of this possible.
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Leveraging Local Resources to Change the Equation
An estimated 75 percent of the population in Nigeria has access to a mobile phone, so the mPedigree system leverages an asset that is readily available in this part of the world. It’s one example of the potential that mobile technology holds to enhance health and healthcare in places that lack more developed internet infrastructure. To this end, HP recently donated $1 million to the mHealth Alliance to support the use of mobile technology in the advancement of global health care.
mPedigree founder Bright Simons has this comment about the drug authentication system: “It is important that we developed an African solution to an African problem, using the resources and technologies that are widely available and easy to implement.”