By Suzie Boss
Across much of the developing world, buying medicine amounts to a crapshoot. Consumers in Africa and parts of Southeast Asia face at least a one-in-four chance of paying good money for fake pharmaceuticals, according to World Health Organization estimates. If you’re sick and purchase sugar pills instead of a lifesaving medication, the consequences can be deadly.
Western methods for ensuring drug safety require laboratories, technologies or enforcement strategies “that don’t work in developing nations. We don’t even have constant power sources,” says Ashifi Gogo, a native of Ghana who is combining studies of engineering and innovation at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering. Gogo worked with Bright Simons, an Ashoka fellow also from Ghana, to devise an alternative solution, which they call mPedigree. The program combines mobile phones, scratch-off drug labels and text messaging into a simple, effective way for consumers in places like Accra to find out if the medicines they purchase are the real deal or counterfeit.
Here’s how their method works: mPedigree provides pharmaceutical manufacturers with specially coded labels, which are affixed to individually packaged medicines. At the drugstore counter, the purchaser scratches off a label to reveal a unique code, which he or she texts to a four-digit number. An automated service looks up the code in a database. On the spot, the consumer gets a reply message indicating whether the drug is genuine or fake.
The idea puts drug authentication into the hands of consumers, “who are the ones with the most to lose,” Gogo points out. By empowering end users, he aims to ultimately create safer pharmaceutical distribution networks throughout the developing world. The World Economic Forum sees the same potential, recognizing mPedigree as a Technology Pioneer for 2009. The idea has received support from Ghana’s Food Drug Board as well as local telecom operators and drug manufacturers.
The mPedigree founders based their solution on a home-grown understanding of local context. “We couldn’t have done this sitting in an air-conditioned office,” Gogo says. He knows from experience that mobile phones are ubiquitous in the developing world. “That’s a strength we can build on,” he adds. He also knows that African consumers use scratch-off codes and text messaging because that’s how they top off their cell phone minutes. During recent mPedigree trials in Accra, consumers had no trouble using the same methods to authenticate drugs.
With trials now expanding to other African countries, mPedigree founders are thinking strategically about how to scale, without pushing up costs for consumers. One idea involves translating the system to a different market. For-profit applications of the scratch-and-authenticate idea would help makers of other consumer goods — such as DVDs or designer clothing — protect their brands against counterfeiting. Profits from selling the system could underwrite the costs of fighting the fake drug trade, creating a win-win solution with technologies at hand.
Suzie Boss is a journalist from Portland, Ore., who writes about social change and education.
Photo credit: flickr/macwagen, Creative Commons license.
I firmly believe that drug safty like any other
form of safty, should be in the final determination,
in the hands of the consumers. Believing what
drug companies or at times governments tell us
about the safty or any drug, is absolute is taking
a risk that is unwise.
Thanks for the coverage! It's great to see more interest in using mobile phones in new and rather interesting ways in Africa. It's the only modern infrastructure that we've got.
Please let me know if you have any questions: firstname.lastname@example.org or @ashifi on twitter.