According to the World Health Organization, roughly one in 10 medical products in low- and middle-income countries is substandard or fake. More than 120,000 people in Africa alone die each year as a result of taking falsified anti-malarial drugs—though the problem affects every region of the world. The spread of this problem is also beguilingly persistent, in part because it’s so lucrative: the counterfeit drug industry is estimated to be worth $200 billion.
Fortunately, a growing number of organizations are taking the counterfeit-drug problem head-on—in spite of its size, pervasiveness, and logistical complexity.
For example, a tech firm called Sproxil is experimenting with attaching scratch-panel stickers to packets of medicines so that workers in health clinics can scratch to reveal a code, which they then text to Sproxil. After the company confirms the authenticity of the code, it responds with a go-ahead. This service, called Sproxil, serves customers on six continents.
Of course, for a solution like that to have any real impact, authentic, high-quality medicines have to be available in the first place. Ensuring their presence in the markets that need them is the central aim of organizations run by health administrators, such as Dr. Barry Ewy.
Dr. Ewy’s nonprofit organization, Blessings International, supplies pharmaceuticals, vitamins, and medical equipment to some of the most impoverished places on earth. They do this by outfitting medical mission teams, clinics, and hospitals with the medicines and tools they need to do their health outreach work.
“I am focused on providing good, safe medicine to developing areas of the world where there’s a lot of substandard medicine and counterfeit medicine,” says Dr. Ewy, CEO of Blessings International and a pharmacist, attorney, and health administrator who teaches at Ohio University. “This allows people to have access to quality medicine at a very discounted or even free price.”
Dr. Ewy points out that the substandard medicine issue poses a threat to everyone in the world—not just those who lack access to the drugs they need. Medicines that contain far less than the ideal amount of the active ingredient can lead to widespread resistance. For example, he says, anti-malarial medicines with smaller-than-necessary shares of the active ingredient have enabled mosquitoes to develop resistance to even high-quality anti-malarials.
Counterfeit and substandard medicines won’t disappear on their own. In the eyes of sick people who need treatment, less-than-perfect medicines will always be better than no medicine at all. Dr. Ewy recognizes this, which is why his organization is focused on ensuring that high-quality pharmaceuticals are present in the areas where counterfeits run rampant.
“If there’s a lack of access to a certain medicine, substandards or counterfeits more easily enter the market—simply because there may not be access otherwise,” Dr. Ewy says. “If that’s the only thing that you have, you’re going to try to take it.”
Dr. Ewy’s goal: Make sure no one finds themselves in that desperate situation.
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