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General News of Thursday, 10 June 2010


Innovation to Stop Fake Medicines Unites Ghana & Nigeria

I have been in Ghana this past few weeks. This is quite a fascinating country. After you've stayed here for a few days you realise that the economic situation most Ghanaians have to live with on a daily basis is not really any better than what Nigerians have to go through. The difference though is that Ghanaians seem to be more restrained about using the excuse of economic hardship to engage in anti-social behavior. You get the impression that there is a lot about Ghana that Nigeria can learn from.

These are a people trying hard to make things work even though they are faced with similar challenges that in Nigeria tends to bring us to our knees. Of course, there are also areas where it is clear Ghana can learn from Nigeria. Attempts to introduce the Bus Transit system in Accra has stalled for many years due to bickering. Remember how smoothly this was implemented in Lagos. But one visits a place with an open mind curious to learn which things one may take back to one’s own country.

I was in this frame of mind when I heard of the “mPedigree” program. The term “mPedigree” I understand stands for “mobile pedigree”. A “pedigree” is the “quality credentials” of something.

Everyone knows of how crazy the fake medicines situation became in Nigeria and of Dora Akunyili's valiant battle to restore sanity. I was pleasantly surprised to hear at the Ghana Ministry of Health that the country has been developing a totally new approach since 2008 - mobile phones. This is what they are calling the mPedigree program. Any medicine at all can be packaged with an ID code that only works for that bottle or box of medicine. Without paying for even the SMS message the buyer can find out in a few seconds if the medicine is genuine - completely free. You can imagine how impressed I was. Even though the service is now being revamped and is not available, the mere thought of it is amazing.

I was about to add this innovation to my list of things Nigeria can learn from Ghana when upon probing deeper I learnt that actually Ghana and Nigeria has been working together on this initiative for a long time now.

I thought immediately that this initiative is a great example of cooperation within the ECOWAS region and a very commendable Ghanaian-Nigerian showcase that should be celebrated more. Since in recent times there has been rising tension, no doubt exaggerated by some press houses, between Ghanaian and Nigerian traders, this shining example of collaboration for mutual benefit ought to be applauded by all. Tuesday in my last week in Ghana was Africa Day when we were supposed to be celebrating African unity so I was inspired to learn more about the details of this interesting trans-border initiative.

Insiders working on the initiative informed me that NAFDAC and stakeholders have been working on the Nigerian end of the project for many months now and that very soon the full scheme will be rolled out in both countries. What is more interesting is that NAFDAC has always seen this as a regional initiative that will extend from Nigeria to other African countries. Strong trade in medicines within West Africa has led to the creation of the West African Drug Regulatory Network (WADRAN) and the West African Pharmaceuticals Manufacturers Association (WAPMA), which are organizations that NAFDAC can use to widen the reach of the mobile phone anti-counterfeiting initiative.

In fact, we understand that in mid-2009, the Nigerian Ambassador to Ghana tasked his Chief of Mission, Mr. A. M. Salisu, to investigate how such high-level cooperation can help boost relations between Ghana and Nigeria, which at the time was coloured by xenophobic commentary in some Ghanaian and Nigerian newspapers. According to Mr. A. M. Salisu, “His Excellency the High Commissioner met one Bright Simons and was fully briefed on the program. A taskforce was then formed to push this serious collaboration for the health of both our peoples”.

Speaking at a conference in November 2009 at Alisa Hotel in Accra, Mazi Sam Ohuanbunwa of WAPMA insisted strongly that an anti-counterfeiting initiative cannot be successful except as part of regional arrangements. This was supported by Pharmacist Dioka of NAFDAC during further deliberations on the subject. It is very good to see leaders beginning to see that our biggest problems can only be solved in Africa when we work together. Nkrumah must be smiling in his grave!

At the November conference, mPedigree Network, one of the co-organisers of the conference, and a consultant to NAFDAC on the mobile phone anti-counterfeiting initiative, presented the details of how the mobile phone method for detecting fake drugs will work to stakeholders from across West Africa. The organisation’s spokespeople revealed that NAFDAC has put in place a comprehensive framework to ensure a world-class project, and the hope was that other regulators may learn from NAFDAC’s pioneering and visionary role.

A month later, according to an executive of the Pharmacists Association of Nigeria who attended, they made the same comments when they presented preliminary results of the ongoing project before stakeholders from the Commonwealth’s Africa region in Abuja. Our checks indicated that mPedigree is one of a number of organisations working in both Ghana and Nigeria to bridge the two countries. MPedigree has a partnership with the Ghanaian Ministry of Health and is also the Secretary to the NAFDAC Committee working on the cellphone anti-counterfeiting initiative.

Organisations like LEAP Africa have long shown the way that Ghana and Nigeria can drive the West African region if the two countries work together. Clearly, more organisations like LEAP Africa and mPedigree whose work covers both the private and public sectors will be needed if regional integration is to become a success. We are glad that the banks are taking the lead in this area but we need the other categories of business and social development to be similarly engaged in the regional integration drive.

Even though discussions about using mobile phone technology to stem counterfeiting in Nigeria have been going on for many months now, the current impetus derived from a meeting in June 2009 chaired by Dr. Paul Orhii in which all stakeholders in Nigeria agreed to the broad conditions needed for such a scheme to become operational. An earlier approach of using hologram technology was largely opposed by key members of the industry who saw that system as obsolete and ineffective. A committee was thus later formed to examine the use of the more dynamic mobile phone technology in the fight against fake drugs in Nigeria. As all of us know already, fake medicines are causing serious health effects on millions of people in our countries, with a think tank in London called the IPN estimating that more than 700.000 have died in recent times from this problem.

Sources close to the pharmaceutical industry in Nigeria and Ghana indicate that most importers and manufacturers are broadly in support of the project because of the high rate of counterfeiting in Nigeria, which Business Monitor International, one of the world’s leading research organizations put at 40%. However, industry players have emphasized that cost and security must be carefully looked at to ensure that the program deliver to its objectives and that Nigerians are offered nothing but the best in this kind of technology-assisted regulation. A pilot of the initiative done in 2008 on paediatric medicine in Ghana and another pilot early this year in Nigeria on glucophage are all being reviewed as part of the initiative in both countries.

NAFDAC has assured the players of its commitment to ensuring that the project is completely world-class as far as costs, performance and security are concerned. We have information that some major global powerhouses in technology, such as Hewlett Packard and Xerox, have already expressed an interest in the project and will like to assist NAFDAC put in place a system that works reliably and imposes minimal costs on everyone involved. The service will continue to be free to all consumers.

One other major stakeholder that needs to be fully brought on board is the Pharmacists Society of Nigeria and its members, since the scheme anticipates that pharmacists shall train consumers to use the mobile phone method and even lend them their phones for use in sending the free text messages if necessary. Checks at the PSN suggest that some individual members are aware of the program but that the organisation as a whole is yet to study the full details.

NAFDAC has however already solicited the views of the Pharmaceuticals Manufacturers Group of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (PMGMAN), NIROPHARM, APIN and opinion leaders across Nigeria in order to ensure that the system that eventually emerges is tamper-proof and run with the highest integrity.

With the latest African Union stipulation that ICT becomes one of the key means of economic and political integration across the continent, and this month commemorating the golden jubilee of African Liberation, we want to commend NAFDAC and the Ghanaian Ministry of Health for their visionary work in creating something that shall bind the West African region together in the common fight against dangerous fake medicines.