African health tech startups use blockchain, AI to fight counterfeit drugs
- The spread of counterfeit medicines poses a serious threat to public health, especially in Africa.
- In addition to not providing the desired therapeutic effects, counterfeit medicines can also have serious health consequences and in some cases lead to death.
- However, African health tech startups are actively assisting in the fight against counterfeit drugs using technology.
In its latest threat assessment report published in February 2023, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reveals that the consumption of counterfeit and substandard medicines results in approximately 500,000 deaths annually in sub-Saharan Africa.
Among these deaths, 167,271 deaths are linked to counterfeit antibiotics used to treat severe pediatric pneumonia, while 267,000 deaths are linked to counterfeit antimalarial drugs annually.
The report reveals that 40% of substandard and counterfeit medical products detected in Sahel countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – between 2013 and 2021 were detected within the regulated supply chain.
These countries depend on imported medical products because their pharmaceutical industry is still in the early stages of development.
The high prevalence of infectious diseases, including malaria, coupled with issues of availability, affordability and availability of health services, creates an environment where the demand for medical products and services is not fully met through formal channels in the Sahel countries and their neighbours.
The gap between supply and demand for regulated pharmaceutical products promotes human trafficking, encourages the involvement of organized criminal groups, and exacerbates the threat to public health and security in the Sahel countries.
Furthermore, despite the difficulty of making an accurate confirmation, the UNODC says it believes that 50% of medicines in West Africa are either fake or of poor quality.
How to identify counterfeit medicines
The WHO claims that some counterfeit medical products are difficult to distinguish from genuine ones. But you can do the following:
- Check the packaging for damage, spelling and grammatical errors.
- Verify that the manufacturing and expiration dates and the dates listed on the inner packaging match the dates listed on the outer packaging.
- Make sure the medicine does not smell strange, has not deteriorated and is not contaminated.
- If you feel that the product is not working well or have experienced a side effect, contact your doctor or other health care professional as soon as possible.
- Report suspected medicinal products to your country’s national medicines authority.
How technology is fighting Africa’s counterfeit drug epidemic
Research shows a significant prevalence of substandard medicines in many developing countries. The problem is exacerbated by poverty, corruption and a lack of regulations and policies.
However, new technological advances and innovations are being used to help mitigate this global health threat.
1. Mobile technology
Mobile technology is critical to combating counterfeit medicines in Africa. It helps people verify the authenticity of medicines by scanning holograms, QR codes and other identifiers found on medicine packaging using mobile applications and SMS-based platforms.
mPedigree, a Ghanaian startup, is a startup that uses mobile technology to combat drug counterfeiting.
Customers can send a unique code found on medicine packaging via SMS to a centralized database for verification. Users quickly receive a response confirming the drug’s authenticity, which helps them avoid buying counterfeit drugs.
Consumers can also use a unique product identification marker from mPedigree to assess authenticity. They simply remove the label or display a barcode to send a code via text message or mobile camera.
In addition, mPedigree has a mobile application called “GoldKeys” that allows users to scan unique codes or holograms on drug packaging to verify authenticity.
The app provides real-time feedback, helps users detect fake medicines and choose reliable healthcare services.
Chekkit, a Nigerian health technology startup, offers a similar service via mobile phone. When a consumer picks up a drug and scratches off the sticker, they will see a PIN code that they can authenticate using the USSD option or by scanning the QR code with the ChekkitApp on their smartphone.
Chekkit collects consumer data through surveys, which they then offer to brands as intelligence. Customers, on the other hand, receive loyalty rewards for providing information.
Because they receive instant feedback and real-time authentication, these technologies enable consumers to make informed decisions and avoid counterfeit medicines.
2. Artificial Intelligence (AI)
AI algorithms can detect anomalies and flag potential counterfeit drugs by analyzing large datasets, including market trends, pricing data and distribution patterns.
With the help of data-driven insights, authorities and regulatory bodies can take proactive measures and effectively target counterfeit medicine networks.
Nigerian RxAll uses artificial intelligence to detect counterfeit drugs. RxScanner, its proprietary technology, is a handheld authenticator designed for patients to verify their medications. RxScanner can assess the quality of prescription drugs in 20 seconds and displays real-time results through mobile apps. It does this by comparing the results with a large database of authentic substances.
Cameroon’s True-Spec Africa uses a wearable device that uses AI to enable hospitals, pharmacies, pharmaceutical laboratories and quality control centers to quickly and easily determine drug authenticity.
Healthtech startups are using blockchain technology to improve the pharmaceutical supply chain and increase transparency.
By establishing decentralized, immutable ledgers, these startups enable all stakeholders—manufacturers, distributors, and regulators—to track the flow of drugs from production to delivery.
The safety and effectiveness of medicines in Africa will be guaranteed by this technology, which makes it easy to identify and remove counterfeit medicines in circulation.
Medsaf is a Nigerian end-to-end pharmaceutical platform that uses this technology. The company provides hospitals, pharmacies and patients with timely access to affordable, high-quality medicines.
It has created a blockchain-based platform that allows users to track and verify the flow of medicines between pharmacies, distributors and healthcare facilities. There is less chance of fake medicines entering the market and the supply chain is guaranteed.
Chekkit also plans to develop its blockchain infrastructure after raising new funds recently. Cardano, a blockchain startup that invested through Adaverse, its accelerator division, is one of the investors.
Combating counterfeit drugs in Africa requires new and comprehensive approaches. By leveraging mobile technology, blockchain and AI, health tech startups are revolutionizing the battle.
Why are counterfeit drugs a problem in Africa?
The WHO estimates that Africa accounts for around 42% of all cases of counterfeit medicines globally. This lucrative industry generates about $200 billion in revenue annually.
For context, 42% of the fake drug reports sent to the WHO between 2013 and 2017 were from Africa.
In March 2019, Niger’s Ministry of Public Health warned of the spread of counterfeit meningitis vaccines (Mencevax ACWY). The WHO also alerted the continent to the distribution of counterfeit hypertension drugs in Cameroon.
Then, in August, fake Augmentin antibiotics were found in Kenya and Uganda.
The main suppliers of these medicines are companies that export medicines from nations such as Belgium, France, China and India.
These products are illegally removed from the legal supply chain or manufactured in nearby countries such as Nigeria. Others are manufactured and distributed by criminal gangs, while some are poorly made or sold after expiration.
The threat assessment report reveals that international operations conducted between January 2017 and December 2021 resulted in the seizure of at least 605 tonnes of illicit medical products in West Africa.
The main entry points for counterfeit medical products bound for the Sahel countries have been identified as ports in the Gulf of Guinea, specifically Conakry (Guinea), Tema (Ghana), Lomé (Togo), Cotonou (Benin) and Apapa (Nigeria).
This alarming situation promotes toxic pollution and antimicrobial resistance, while eroding faith in the healthcare system. Trade in these products also has a direct economic impact on the countries involved.
The WHO claims that a whopping $44.7 million is spent annually on treating people who have taken subpar or fake malaria drugs.
Because they pose a significant threat (PDF) to global public health and result in tens of thousands of deaths annually, counterfeit drugs are a problem in Africa. Malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis medicines are the three most counterfeited medicines on the continent.
Definition of terms
- A counterfeit medicine (substance) is purposefully and fraudulently mislabelled in terms of identity and/or source. Branded and generic products can be the target of counterfeiting, and these products can have correct or incorrect ingredients, no active ingredients, insufficient amounts of active ingredients, or fake packaging.
- Substandard, also called “out of specification”, refers to approved medical products that do not meet their quality requirements/specifications.
- Unregistered/unlicensed medical products do not comply with national or regional regulations and laws and have not undergone evaluation and/or approval for the market where they are marketed, distributed or used.
- Counterfeit medical products knowingly or fraudulently misrepresent identity, composition or source.