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What happens when drugs meant to treat diseases actually cause more harm than the disease itself? An estimated 700,000 people are killed every year because of counterfeit malaria and tuberculosis drugs.
However, a company called Sproxil has designed a way for consumers to make sure the medications purchased are authentic. Using any cell phone, customers can text message an item-unique code and receive an instant response confirming the brand's genuineness.
In an interview with MediaGlobal, Alden Zencha, CFO and Strategist for Sproxil explained, "We saw the tremendous need to protect consumers, especially the economically disadvantaged in developing nations, and decided to design a solution to solve the problem."
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that up to 30 percent of medication on the market in developing countries in Africa are counterfeit and have found that nearly half of the drugs sold in Angola, Burundi, and the Congo are substandard. Additionally, about two-thirds of anti-malaria drugs in Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam contain insufficient active ingredients.
In 2003, Interpol, an international police organization, conducted a survey on the quality of drugs available in Lagos, sub-Saharan Africa's most populous city and found that 80 percent of the drugs available were fakes. In 2008, more than 80 children in Nigeria died after being given medicine for teething pain. These medicines looked, smelled, and tasted like the real thing, but were laced with antifreeze.
Counterfeit medicines come in all different varieties, and range from treatment of life-threatening conditions to expensive generic versions of painkillers and antihistamines. They are fraudulently mislabeled in an effort to deliberately conceal their identity or where they came from. Fake medicines can be missing key ingredients, use the wrong ingredient, or have insufficient or too much of the active ingredient.
Some fraudulent drugs work to an extent, making them harder to detect. In some cases, use of these medicines can increase drug resistance. When there is not enough of the active ingredient, the drug kills some of the parasites or viruses, but the pathogens that are not killed adapt. As time goes on, even if a patent was to be treated with the correct medication, he or she would not be cured.
The origin of fake or substandard drugs is often hard to track because these medicines are often hidden in cargoes sent on roundabout journeys to prevent the source from being discovered.
Jacqueline Sawyer, Liaison Officer at WHO's Prequalification of Medicines Programme, told MediaGlobal "The problem of counterfeit medicines is more prevalent in countries where medicine regulation is ineffective, smuggling of medicines is rampant, secret manufacturing exists, sanctions are absent or very weak, and there is high corruption."
Although no country is free of these fake drugs, because of the lack of penalty, developing countries have been the most affected. For a large number of people in these countries, paying for medicines can consume a large portion of the family income. Because of this, some people look for cheaper medications, which are often from non-regulated outlets where the likelihood of counterfeiting is high.
Until recently, few government agencies or aid organizations were adequately evaluating the quality of the medicines, so counterfeiters targeted drugs sold in large volumes. Even today, some agencies buy inadequately tested drugs because of their lower price tag.
While only one percent of the illegal drug market is in countries like the United States and Canada, there have been examples of counterfeits wreaking havoc within these countries as well. Robert Courtney, a pharmacist in Kansas City, diluted cancer patient's drugs in order to make a profit; risking the lives of many he filled prescriptions for. He is now doing 30 years in federal prison.
When asked what was being done to address the problem of fake drugs, Sawyer said not much is preventing criminals from producing. She explained that counterfeiters are flexible in the methods they use, possibly changing their methods on a daily basis. Lack of legislation prohibiting the manufacturing and trade of counterfeit medicines, and the absence of deterrent sanctions, encourages criminals to continue production.
Sproxil is currently operating in Nigeria and has plans to roll the system out globally over time, giving priority to countries that have a significant drug counterfeiting issue and government support to address the problem. "Working together we can succeed in stopping the counterfeiters who profit at the expense of others. Thousands of people are using our system regularly and more are joining all the time. We receive thank you messages from users about how Sproxil's solution has made a notable difference in their lives," Zencha explained.
With a high number of fake drugs being sold worldwide, this simple verification plan offers a way of letting consumers know exactly what they are getting when they purchase the drug and is likely to reduce the number of deaths due to fake medicines.
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