Kenya has become the most recent African country to start a pilot scheme for mobile phone verification of pharmaceuticals. Its use is simple and provides an immediate response for the user.

A scratch panel applied to a package of medicine reveals a code that can be sent via text message to a toll-free number for verification. An immediate reply indicates whether or not the code, and therefore the medication, is genuine. The Kenyan project is using the mPedigree system devised by a Ghana-based non-profit organisation.

The scheme in Kenya involves locally manufactured rather than imported products and the pilot programme will last four months. If it is successful it will be expanded to offer a toll-free service to all mobile phone subscribers on participating networks. It is hoped that the Kenya pilot project will eventually be rolled out across east Africa.

Countries in Africa, especially those is in west Africa where malaria is most wide-spead, have become the target of counterfeit medicines that not only deprive people of the benefit of real treatment but make some diseases, such as malaria, even more virulent and dangerous.

Recent research by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) has found that from 50 to 60 per cent of anti-infective medicines tested in Africa and Asia did not have insufficient quantities of the active ingredient.

Antibiotics, anti-retrovirals and drugs to fight malaria and tuberculosis are the main targets of counterfeiters who manage to reproduce the exact packaging of the original product. Theft of pharmaceuticals for later re-sale at a lower price than the genuine product is also on the rise, as is the forging of expiry dates on packaging.

A recent UNDOC report, Transnational Trafficking and the Rule of Law in West Africa, has estimated that the money gained from the illegal trade in pharmaceuticals will total about $75 billion in 2010, a 92 per cent increase on 2005.

For more details of the UNDOC report click here.

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