With medicine progressing as rapidly as it is, people in the developing world are gaining access to the treatment of basic diseases. This has promoted growth and increased innovation but some issues have come up, one such issue being the production of counterfeit medicine. These are hitting the shelves and leading to the deaths of individuals who don’t know that they aren’t ingesting the proper medicine.

The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene recently published a study identifying counterfeit malaria drugs as the cause of over 100,000 deaths in Africa in one year alone. More recently, in 2008, counterfeit teething medication was responsible for the death of 84 infants and toddlers whose parents were unaware that counterfeit drug makers had replaced a key chemical, propylene glycol, which is a medicinal solvent, with diethylene glycol, which is a solvent used in brake fluid. About 75 percent of the children who used this teething medication died. This was the breaking point for many individuals throughout Africa who were struggling to provide their families with the best medical care possible.

With the high cost of medications nowadays, it is no wonder that people would seek a cheaper option. However, there is often no way to tell if a medication is truly what it is advertised as or simply a placebo pill that will have no effect on any illness. Thankfully, innovator Bright Simons has developed a way for people to verify that the medicine they are purchasing is valid. Although it does have a few issues, it has proven to be very helpful so far.

Simons has developed a coding system called MPedigree, which allows customers to text a code that is printed on the label of their medication to a number and get an immediate response from the manufacturer that lets them know whether or not their medication is real. These labels are printed in China and India even though the system was developed in Ghana, as Ghana still faces issues with power outages and could, therefore, have unreliable printing sources. Today, the company has expanded to validate several goods from makeup to cables. Anything that is commonly counterfeited can be tracked using this system.

While the app has been successful so far, Simons ran into a few issues with counterfeiters copying numbers from genuine products and labeling fake products with the same number. Thankfully, this was caught and those who texted the code were notified of the counterfeit drugs in the system. After this point, HP agreed to take over the data portion of MPedigree and has saved Simons around $10 million, which he can now put toward funding other projects.

Medicine has created a world in which people no longer have to worry about death from drinking bad water or eating bad food. It has increased human lifespans drastically and will continue to do so as long as people are getting the right medicine for their ailments. By creating counterfeit drugs, people are essentially killing others by not giving them the medicine they need, and all for a small profit. This app, and the many that will come after it, will give people the opportunity to finally put their health in their own hands.

Sumita Tellakat

Sources: Bloomberg Businessweek, Mpedigree
Photo: Empire State Tribune

China’s reputation as a producer and exporter of low-quality, counterfeit goods like shoes, clothing and jewelry make it a likely target for global medical experts looking to assign blame for the tremendous increase in counterfeit medications in Africa. 

Doctors, pharmaceutical companies and NGOs with an eye on Africa rejoiced when China came out with a cure for malaria in the form of artemisinin a few years ago, believing this medical marvel would be instrumental in alleviating the woes of global poverty and high mortality rates in the developing world.

After the initial excitement died down, however, disparaged global medical experts began to realize the obstacles that still lay before them in the form of global drug counterfeiting. Maverick manufacturers around the world have begun to view the African malaria problem as a free-for-all chance to make some money by selling placebo pills labeled as artemisinin to suffering patients who are unable to tell the difference.

In Uganda and Tanzania, the two countries with the highest malaria death rates in the world, the widespread, faulty drug regulation and corrupted business practices have allowed an influx of counterfeit drugs to enter the market alongside the true, lifesaving doses of artemisinin. Oxford University’s Wellcome Trust, a group that researches and spreads awareness about the counterfeit malaria drug problem, estimates that one-third of malaria drugs in Uganda are fake or of poor quality.

This alarmingly high rate is cause for concern, especially since medical workers in Uganda and Tanzania are often aware that they may be selling counterfeit drugs but can “do little to tell which are real and which won’t work.” Fake pills can even bear the same inscriptions as the drugs they counterfeit but contain no real medication, thus duping even the local pharmacists that are dispensing them.

So, whose job is it to make sure those suffering from malaria in Africa are getting the drugs they need? Many are looking towards global aid organizations to step in and make sure that the billions of dollars they are putting into malaria pills are being spent on authentic drugs.

Others are looking to China itself to fix what it may have started, and to use this as a chance to redeem themselves in spite of their reputation as a global counterfeiting hub. Discovering the cure for malaria has been one of the country’s crowning medical achievements, and malaria-focused aid groups around the world lament that “the intriguing tale of the drug’s invention in China and its eventual emergence as a first-line treatment is getting lost in the deadly battle against fakes and counterfeits.”

Deciding to take action against the counterfeit market could be China’s chance to reverse its reputation and settle into a role as a key global player.

– Alexandra Bruschi

Sources: The Atlantic, The Guardian
Photo: Study in China