AJEROMI-IFELODUN, Nigeria — On June 22, 30 pharmacies and patent medical stores were shut down in Ajeromi-Ifelodun, a small area in Nigeria’s most populous state, Lagos. The update came from the Lagos State Ministry of Health, which sealed the stores for reportedly selling counterfeit drugs. Just weeks before, the Nigerian senate had passionately discussed a new bill that would sentence “culprits of sale and production of fake drugs” to life imprisonment.
Such actions exemplify new efforts in an ongoing battle that has been raging in Nigeria for years. The market for counterfeit drugs has sapped $72 billion from the Nigerian economy according to the Nigerian senate, and the government continues to struggle against perpetrators. But new technology offers hope for Nigerians, who have been powerless in the fight until recently.
Nigeria is just one case study in a global problem. The effects of counterfeit drugs weigh most on the world’s poor, who are more susceptible to illness, have less access to high quality health care and live in nations with emerging pharmaceutical markets. In Africa today, up to 30 percent of all drugs sold are fake.
The sale of fake medicine causes a myriad of social issues. The presence of counterfeits scares genuine pharmaceutical companies away from markets, stymieing local economies and further reinforcing the prevalence of fake drugs. Substandard medication can create drug resistance in pathogens, exacerbating epidemics that are already challenging to subdue.
In the most tragic cases, effects can be fatal. Drugs that are merely impotent will fail to treat serious diseases, like malaria or bacterial infections, dooming the unsuspecting patients who take them. Sometimes the drugs themselves can kill.
It is for all of these reasons that Nigeria’s National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) bore down on the issue in 2001, when Dora Nkem Akunyili became its director general. Akunyili famously defined counterfeiting drugs as “a form of terrorism against public health,” worse than the banes of malaria, HIV/AIDS and armed robbery combined. After Akunyili took over, NAFDAC “declared war” on counterfeit drugs in Nigeria, yielding significant gains with newfound determination.
But the recent news from Nigeria shows that this battle is far from over and suggests that the state is ramping up law enforcement to deal with counterfeiting, introducing new laws and cracking down on offenders.
Other methods, though, have put the fight in the hands of consumers. Sproxil is an American-based company that provides an easy way for Nigerians to test the genuineness of drugs themselves with their mobile phones.
Products protected by Sproxil come with scratch-off labels, under which are unique codes that buyers can text to a region-specific number. Sproxil replies instantly, verifying whether or not the product is authentic. All buyers need is access to SMS. The company even provides a 24-hour hotline that advises consumers how to avoid counterfeits when they go shopping for medicine.
Sproxil has a global impact, partnering with more than 70 clients in the pharmaceutical industry and serving more than 100 countries. But perhaps nowhere has it been so essential as in Nigeria’s fight against counterfeit drugs. Sproxil has been a key asset in NAFDAC’s arsenal for at least the past five years.
According to Atim Ukoh, Sproxil Nigeria’s social media representative, “Sproxil has been very influential in the pharmaceutical space in Nigeria.” He explained that NAFDAC’s extensive support of Sproxil has mushroomed its effectiveness against counterfeit drugs in Nigeria. “It is important to have the backing of regulatory bodies and resources for enforcement,” Ukoh wrote, suggesting that other countries could learn a lot from Nigeria’s anti-counterfeit model.
According to Ukoh, today the company protects 150 million Nigerians. And despite such success, he wrote, Sproxil Nigeria is tirelessly working to “spread awareness” about its services and improve its offerings.
It is Sproxil’s simplicity that makes its model so promising. It means that people do not have to rely on the state or scientists to ensure the genuineness of drugs. And It is a testament to the ways technology can empower the world’s most underserved in unprecedented ways.