The packaging appears authentic. The labelling looks right and the pharmaceutical company’s logo is spot-on. But what about the tablets inside the foil blister pack?

They seem the right size, shape and colour. Must be the real thing – but can you be sure? Welcome to the world of counterfeit drugs – and, in some countries and regions, a kind of pharmaceutical Wild West.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines counterfeit medicine as “one which is deliberately and fraudulently mislabelled with respect to identity and/or source”. And fake pharmaceuticals are getting harder to spot, largely because counterfeiters are using sophisticated techniques such as reproducing features designed to indicate authenticity, like holograms.

Virgin Unite, sustainability, sustainia,mPedigree

Virgin Unite, sustainability, sustainia,mPedigree

Never mind the label, though. The contents are faked too, of course – making their ingestion a form of Russian roulette. If you’re lucky, and the tablets merely contain chalk or starch, you’ll suffer no ill-effects. A dodgier one could leave you dead. Indeed, according to WHO, 100,000 deaths a year in Africa are linked to the counterfeit drug trade. The International Policy Network, a British think-tank, believes fake tuberculosis and malaria drugs account for 700,000 deaths globally.

The online market has only made matters worse. “The increasing prevalence of counterfeit and illicit goods has been compounded by the rise in internet trade, where they can be bought easily, cheaply and without a prescription,” Interpol says. “It is impossible to quantify the extent of the problem, but in some areas of Asia, Africa and Latin America counterfeit medical goods can form up to 30 per cent of the market.”

All of which makes mPedigree’s solution so clever. The Ghanaian company enables patients to determine the authenticity of their medicine. How? By sending a code from the medicine package to a designated number via a free SMS.

Virgin Unite, sustainability, sustainia,mPedigree

Virgin Unite, sustainability, sustainia,mPedigree

Patients simply scratch off a panel on the package to reveal the unique code, which they send via SMS to a secure global hotline for verification. Within seconds they receive a reply confirming or denying the authenticity of the medicine, as well as information about the product.

As simple as it is innovative, mPedigree’s pharmaceutical verification system, GoldKeys, has verified a billion units of medicine and protected over 30 million people. Developed in Ghana, India, Uganda and Ireland, the solution has since been deployed in 12 countries, including Nigeria and Bangladesh.

GoldKeys provides a number of social, economic and environmental benefits. First and foremost, it protects patients in developing countries from consuming harmful counterfeit medicine, thus preventing unnecessary deaths. Second, it helps reduce the release of unsafe substances into the environment.

Virgin Unite, sustainability, sustainia,mPedigree

Virgin Unite, sustainability, sustainia,mPedigree

Third, GoldKeys protects pharmaceutical companies against counterfeits and the ensuing damage to their brand – an obvious economic benefit. Globally, counterfeit medicine is a $75 billion annual industry. mPedigree helps reduce illegal profits and prevents consumers wasting their money on fake pharmaceuticals.

Of course, saving lives remains the primary purpose of mPedigree’s pharmaceutical verification system. In a 2012 article for the Mediterranean Journal of Haematology and Infectious Diseases, Pierre Ambroise-Thomas, an expert on malaria and tropical parasitic diseases, wrote that: “Counterfeiting is more than a criminal act. Manslaughter is perfectly justified to describe such an act although some prefer calling it simply murder.”

And in this light, GoldKeys is nothing less than the town marshal taking on the gun-slinging outlaws of the Wild West – one scratch panel at a time.

This innovation is part of Sustainia100; a study of 100 leading sustainability solutions from around the world. The study is conducted annually by Scandinavian think-tank Sustainia that works to secure deployment of sustainable solutions in communities around the world. This year’s Sustainia100 study is freely available at – Discover more solutions at @sustainia and #100solutions

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