Fighting counterfeit medicines via SMS

By JAMES RATEMO in Nairobi, Kenya

In the heart of Africa, where humanity wallows in poverty and access to health care is a dream, the fight against counterfeit drugs has been daunting.

But technology is coming to the rescue of millions of patients and consumers who face the risk of using counterfeit medicines each year.

Consumers will soon be able to countercheck genuineness of the drugs they buy via short text messages (SMS) on a platform dubbed mPedigree.

The technology currently being piloted in Kenya means patients and consumers, regardless of educational background, income or status, can instantly verify the safety and efficacy of their medicines using a mobile phone.

This comes on the backdrop of the mobile phone’s increasing utility in African homes.

Speaking at mHealth Africa 2010 conference at the Labadi Beach Resort in Accra, Minister for Medical Services Anyang’ Nyong’o, announced that Kenya has begun piloting the mPedigree system.

The system, Prof Nyong’o says, will prevent Kenyans from falling prey to fake medicines, which have begun flooding markets in East Africa.

growing menace

Even though similar systems have been tried in Ghana and more recently in Nigeria, this is first time the use of such a platform has been endorsed at cabinet level in any country.

According to Dr Esther Ogara, Manager of Kenya’s e-Health policy, the adoption of the mPedigree platform would help nip in the bud the growing menace of counterfeit medicines.

She said pharmaceutical firms have been brought on board to support the initiative. She, however, says such e-Health initiatives can only be supported based on the evidence of their impact and not on the innovation alone.

The mPedigree, a non-profit organisation based in Ghana, offers a free and rapid means for customers to verify the authenticity of the drugs they purchase at the point of sale, using a mobile phone.

For Bright Simmons, President of the mPedigree Network, the system is proving vital as a means of raising awareness about counterfeit medicines in the region.

“The system offers a mechanism for bridging the public health and IP protection concerns of the public and private sectors and is a means for vendors to position themselves as quality suppliers and IP-compliant businesses,” says Simmons.

He says the mPedigree platform is an “economically accessible, technically feasible and literacy-neutral” service of increasing interest to authorities in Africa in combating counterfeit drugs.

In fact, in June this year, the West African Health Organisation (WAHO) announced it had adopted the mPedigree technology platform as a regional standard in the fight against counterfeit drugs.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers have also been in discussions with mPedigree regarding deployment of the platform in their African operations.

How IT works

First piloted in Ghana in 2008, mPedigree connects GSM mobile networks to a central registry, which stores information on the branded medicines of participating drug manufacturers.

The platform focuses on “authenticating the supply line from one level of the supply chain to the other, all the way to the consumer.”

It allows manufacturers to tag each unit pack of pharmaceuticals with a unique code that consumers can send via text message to a toll-free number for an almost instantaneous response regarding the legitimacy of the product.

Only properly certified medicines can be verified in this way and the “one-time use” design of the codes prevents forgeries of legitimate medicines entering the supply chain.

Under the system, each pack of drugs is embossed with a unique alphanumeric code.

Consumers scratch off a panel to reveal a code, which they then send by text message to the toll-free number leased from telecom operators and directed to the mPedigree application.

The cost of the SMS messages is borne by the manufacturers who benefit from discounted rates from operating telecom partners.

According to experts, the much used hologram technology and radio-frequency identification (RFID) systems, which use radio waves to identify and track drugs are beyond the purse of many developing countries. This makes mPedigree an effective and cost-effective alternative.

According to Mr Simmons, the mPedigree platform “provides all the security of RFID, but comes at a tenth of the cost.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that more than 10 per cent of medicines on the global market are fake, and that 25 per cent of those in developing countries are counterfeit or sub-standard.

Not only do these products claim lives daily, they increase resistance to pathogens and, as a consequence, place an even heavier burden on resource-constrained public health systems.

Easy access

With over four billion mobile connections around the world and terrestrial GSM networks covering more than 80 per cent of the world’s population, mobile telephony is on track to becoming a near-universal technology by 2015, some studies suggest.

As the technology advances in Kenya, mobile phones have not only enabled users to make voice calls, but also to offer easy access to a stunning array of innovative applications.

In fact, across the developing countries, the mobile gadgets are creating opportunities for users to access market information, monitor health care, transfer money (MPesa, ZAP, YU cash and IkoPesa) and promote literacy.

This technology is also likely to assist in the steady recovery of the more than $200 million that legitimate pharmaceutical companies lose daily to this genocidal counterfeit trade.

The cell phones help drive economic growth, foster business development and wider market access. They also provide a more reliable alternative to roadways and postal systems for communities in remote and underserved areas.

Mobile phones are being used in a range of innovative ways. Fishermen in Senegal use them to obtain information on fish market stocks and prices before deciding in which port to unload their catch for a better return.

They also use mobile phones to transmit and receive distress signals, thereby improving the safety of local fishing fleets.

In South Africa, farmers from the Limpopo Province are avoiding the heavy losses associated with transporting perishable goods to market over long distances by using mobile phones to deal directly with clients within a focused area – again, significantly improving revenues.

A 2005 study by Leonard Waverman of the London Business School showed that an additional ten mobile phones per 100 people in a given developing country boosted GDP growth by 0.6 per cent between 1996 and 2003.



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