NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Social enterprises in India and Nigeria have come up with text messaging services to help patients check that their medicines are safe and are not products of the counterfeit drugs industry which kills many thousands of people annually.
From expensive pills used to treat life-threatening conditions like cancer to cheap painkillers, fake and poor quality drugs are entering the supply chain where unsuspecting customers risk their lives buying them over the counter or the Internet.
Experts say it is difficult to estimate fatalities caused by spurious drugs as it is an underground and highly organised global criminal activity. However, a 2007 study by the London-based International Policy Network said fake malaria and tuberculosis drugs alone accounted for 700,000 deaths annually.
To combat the problem, social enterprises such as Nigeria's Sproxil and India's PharmaSecure have partnered with drug manufacturers such as GlaxoSmithKline and Lupin, to print unique codes on the packaging and strips of medicines which can be verified by customers through sending a text message.
"Given the growing global counterfeiting problems, we wanted to develop a simple, efficient and cost-effective way for customers to verify the genuineness of their products prior to purchasing them," said Meliza Anne Mitra, Sproxil's global business coordinator.
"Additionally, given the prevalence of mobile technology throughout the world, it made sense to use a technology that was already in every customer’s pocket."
Since it launched in Nigeria in 2010, Sproxil has responded to over 8.5 million verification requests from customers across the country, Mitra said.
DEADLY COUGH SYRUP
The World Health Organisation says the $75 billion dollar counterfeit drugs industry mostly impacts regions where regulatory and enforcement systems for medicines are weak such as in Asia, Africa and Latin America, but cases have been reported around the world.
Counterfeit cough syrups and other medicines laced with diethylene glycol have caused eight mass poisonings around the world, including one in 2006 in Panama where 100 people, mostly children, were killed.
In January 2012, 109 heart patients in Pakistan died after taking fake medicines. The same year, tainted steroids killed 11 people and left 100 more sick in the United States.
Both Sproxil and PharmaSecure work with dozens of pharmaceutical firms to print a unique, one-time use code on products. Consumers can then text the code to Sproxil's 38353 number in Nigeria or Pharmasecure's 9901099010 number in India.
Almost instantly, they receive an SMS response indicating whether the product is genuine, or fake. Codes can also be checked through the companies' websites, mobile apps or through a phone call to their customer service desks.
"A spurious drug could be anything from a drug that has lower quantities of the active pharmaceutical ingredient which would make the drug less effective, to drugs which have chalk or talcum power or substances which are actively poisonous in them," said Nakul Pasricha, PharmaSecure's chief operating officer in India.
"They are often made by shady contractual manufacturers who are duping the pharma companies while cutting corners in drug production, or by smaller fly-by-night unhygienic operations in warehouses who them sell them on to distributors who may or may not know the medicines are fake."
Pasricha said PharmaSecure, which started operations in India in 2009 and has since expanded to Nigeria, has placed unique codes on around one billion medicines so far.
Industry experts say the widespread manufacture of fake drugs is forcing authorities to take the issue more seriously.
Last month, French customs seized a stash of 10 tonnes of fake aspirin, erectile dysfunction medication and antti-diahorrea drugs from China in what is believed to be the European Union's biggest-ever seizure of counterfeit medicines.
In March last year, the International Police Agency, or Interpol, recognised the issue as a global public health issue and announced a deal with the pharmaceutical industry to crackdown on fake drugs.
Twenty-nine of the world's biggest drug companies agreed to provide $6 million over three years to help the agency tackle the crime.