Cholera, malaria and the rapidly expanding threat of Ebola have hit African countries with a related health-care problem: the scourge of fake drugs.
An increasing number of West Africans, however, now have the option to use mobile applications to identify counterfeit medications, thanks to collaboration between national drug regulatory bodies and telecom and pharmaceutical companies.
Unlike governments' efforts to achieve the same goal by strengthening drug-supply chains and constantly investigating drug sales, the mobile technology being used in recent initiatives lets end users directly determine the status of the drugs they want to purchase.
Last month, the Pharmaceutical Society of Ghana launched the PREVENT (Patients' Research, Empowerment, Vigilance, and Education Through New Technologies) initiative, tapping technology from mPedigree Network and online expertise from digital agency PopOut.
"The initiative allows participating pharmaceutical companies to add special labeling to their products dispensed at the retail level," explained mPedigree's Selorm Branttie by email. "These labels have special hidden areas which are scratched off to reveal a unique 12-digit numeric code. This is very similar to how mobile airtime is bought in most developing countries in sub-Sahara Africa, so the process is not aliens to every mobile user."
The numeric code is then texted to a unique short code, which is toll free and gives a response within 10 seconds, telling the consumer whether the medicine being checked is original or fake. If it is fake, the app replies with instructions to report to a special hotline. If it is genuine, it relays information about the product such as the brand name, active ingredient, batch number and expiry date, which must match those on the packaging of the medicine.
Meanwhile, PopOut has developed a social media strategy to educate consumers, through the website preventfaking.com, a Twitter account and a Facebook page, where important tips and alerts on how to keep away from fake medicines, as well as experiences and viewpoints, are shared.
Branttie noted that such tools are more important than ever in Ghana due to current health risks like the Ebola virus and cholera outbreaks. Branttie said the PREVENT initiative will soon be introduced in other countries.
"The success of this first one in Ghana has encouraged us to propagate this message across, and plans are already almost concluded to run this initiative in other countries," he said, noting that the Nigerian regulator for foods and drugs, NAFDAC, has already begun a similar service, also in conjunction with mPedigree. The Nigerian service is called MAS, or Mobile Authentication Service.
The MAS scratch and text authentication code was introduced in Nigeria in 2010 by NAFDAC. But the enforcement of its deadline for implementation by pharmaceutical companies nationwide didn't start until July 2014, after being postponed twice due to pleas for more time by a segment of the pharmaceutical industry.
Meanwhile, Sproxil's Mobile Product Authentication application has hit the 10 million user milestone four years after its February 2010 launch. Like mPedigree's system, Sproxil's MPA allows consumers to text codes to a phone number, but also offers a Web app and allows for calls to a call center to verify the quality of a product.
The MPA solution was first implemented in Nigeria with the support of NAFDAC and now includes product protection for 10 industries including agribusiness, health and beauty products, and food and beverages. In Africa, it operates in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya; in other emerging markets, it has operations in India, according to Sproxil's global business coordinator, Meliza Anne Mitra.
"Consumers can avoid potentially harmful or deadly counterfeit products, especially counterfeit drugs, which have been found to have useless fillers like starch and flour and dangerous poisons like rat poison and road paint," Mitra said. "Our call center also helps consumers during their purchasing process by answering certain product-specific questions and giving manufacturers and distributors better insight into their consumers' needs. This feedback loop helps them deliver better products to their consumers and instill greater trust and loyalty in their brand."
However, despite the huge number of mobile phone users in the region, overcoming some challenges would enable the mobile technology to spread faster. The main challenge is that not all pharma institutions are participating in the various initiatives. The biggest ones have, but some have not used the verification systems for their flagship products yet.
More work on consumer awareness needs to be done as well. "The public education aspect of the campaign needs to reach even more deprived areas, which requires even more resources for public education, which isn't very easy to procure," Branttie said.