SEATTLE — The high cost of pharmaceutical drugs affects patients, health care providers, hospitals and governments throughout the world. The pharmaceutical industry is reported to be worth $300 billion a year and in the United States, close to half of the population is using prescription drugs at any given time.
But for people living in developing countries, the high cost of potentially life-saving medicines often means patients turn to the black market for drugs. Up to 30 percent of medicines sold in developing countries are counterfeit or substandard, reports the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In sub-Saharan African countries the proportion of counterfeit drugs sold could be as high as fifty percent. By comparison, it is estimated that less than one percent of drugs sold in industrialized countries is fake.
The global counterfeit drug market is estimated to be a $75 to $200 billion business. But with the lower price tag comes real danger for patients: almost 700,000 people die annually just from fake anti-malarial and tuberculosis drugs. Counterfeit drugs have also contributed to increased drug resistance in treating serious global diseases.
A lack of regulations on pharmaceutical manufacturing in developing countries has exacerbated the problem, particularly in Asia and Africa. Counterfeit medicines range from lacking an active ingredient, which renders them useless, to random mixing of chemicals, which can make the drugs toxic and even deadly. By omitting the active ingredient in medicine, the price can be significantly lowered and the profit margin increased.
The World Health Organization is striving to eliminate the threat of counterfeit medicine globally by issuing alerts that advise people of a particular medication in specific areas, as well as providing safety information on buying medicine online. Big pharmaceutical companies also have a vested interest in targeting the distribution of counterfeit medicine, as the trade in fake drugs can threaten their profits.
But a major obstacle in stemming the tide of counterfeit medicines is the inability of customers, or even local distributors, to distinguish the real drugs from fake ones.
Equipping consumers with the necessary tools to recognize counterfeit medicine is the objective behind the Mobile Product Authentication technology developed by Sproxil, a Boston-based company. The technology can be used to assess the authenticity of any drug.
Here’s how it works: Sproxil partners with local and international pharmaceutical brands to put a label on their product. This label is similar to a prepaid scratch card and has an authentication code printed on it. The customer either texts, calls in, or goes online to verify the code with Sproxil; the number on the label is for one-time use only, which prevents the recycling of the packaging of an authentic drug for counterfeit ones.
The company has set up Africa’s first mobile-based anti-counterfeit service in Nigeria and has sold more than five million anti-counterfeit labels. The company is looking to expand into India and Kenya and is currently working with local companies and pharmaceutical giants, GSK and Johnson & Johnson.
By using this simple technological innovation, patients and doctors may be better able to identify fake medicines before they cause harm.