Using Mobile Phones to Spot Counterfeit Drugs

This is the second installment in a series of posts from participants in the November 8-10, 2010 mHealth Summit in Washington, D.C., organized by the Foundation for the National Institutes for Health (NIH) in partnership with the mHealth Alliance and NIH.

Dr. Ashifi Gogo

One can no longer argue that cell phones are not popular in developing nations. The explosive adoption of mobiles across various economic classes has lead to new thinking on how people at the wide base of the global economic pyramid perceive the value of technology. Who would have assumed that rural farmers making $2/day would one day fuel the growth in cell phone adoption, without a large scale telephone donation aid project? Would you have guessed that this day would come so soon?

Getting a cell phone is but a step in opening one’s world to a new realm of possibilities arising from global interconnectivity. As cell phones become increasingly popular in resource-deprived environments, new and innovative ways are being thought of to deliver services to consumers. Now that cell phones are (almost) everywhere, what new things can people do with them without spending much money?

In a “sort of yin-yang” way, there is another contagious global trend that hasn’t brought much joy in the developing world. Drug counterfeiting is a grave problem that is also gaining widespread attention. From corn starch pressed into pills masquerading as anti-malarials, to teething syrups with an extra helping of chemicals found in anti-freeze, counterfeit products put patients at risk of harmful health outcomes. A report released by the International Policy Network in 2009 estimates that 700,000 lives are lost yearly due to fake malaria and TB drugs alone. It is challenging to get precise figures on the market size of fake drugs, in part because counterfeiters don’t file their tax returns! However, leading researchers believe counterfeiting pharmaceuticals is a multi-billion dollar industry. With the WHO indicating that the fake drug problem is significantly larger in developing nations (compared to developed ones), there is a need to address this problem with an intervention designed to work in developing nations.

Can the exciting drive of mobile phone adoption round up this distressing problem of counterfeiting? Yes. One way to do so is to empower consumers with the right services that enable them to use their everyday phones to identify fake products and avoid buying them. Our mobile services company, Sproxil, provides such a service in Africa. For drugs covered by Sproxil’s Mobile Product Authentication (TM) (MPA (TM)) technology, consumers find a simple label with a scratch-off panel that reveals a number unique to the vial, bottle, blister pack or sachet. Consumers then scratch the panel, SMS the number they see and get a text message response saying “OK” or “FAKE” – taking the guesswork out of buying lifesaving medication. The text message is free to consumers and they can make a purchase decision before spending their money. With over 1.5 million unique items already bearing Sproxil’s labels and tens of thousands of consumers who have already sent text messages, we are pleased to see results that show consumers armed with $10 cell phones can help solve a multi-billion dollar problem through crowdsourcing.

The mobile phone won’t solve all of Africa’s problems – some text messages can surely get people in trouble these days, but society still needs agents to set and enforce laws. For instance, when consumers report the location of fakes using Sproxil’s service, government agencies and pharmaceutical companies still take action with boots on the ground and intelligence from our service. However, by providing a platform for accelerating the demonstration of results, society can get a preview of an alternate, easier mode of living where health services could be delivered affordably. To us, this is one key role cell phones play as developing nations freely enhance their health systems without having to worry about large legacy systems. Perhaps, it won’t be long until we see emerging markets export mature mobile-based healthcare technology and services to established markets, again, in a yin-yang sort of way.

Dr. Ashifi Gogo is an expert in end-consumer authentication technologies and CEO of Sproxil, which provides software and systems that capture market intelligence and uses cell phones to provide protection against pharmaceutical counterfeiters in emerging markets.