Adebayo (left), aged 21, with his friend Peter at the Centenary celebration of alma mater- King’s College Lagos
I grew up in a relatively small town in Nigeria with my parents and sister. My mother worked as a banker in IT programming and my father was an automotive engineer – both had very high academic ambitions for me and fully supported my education. I loved to play chess, ran track, engaged in debates and attended drama classes.
When I was 15 years old, I suffered from a severe asthma attack and my father purchased medicines which he got prescribed from the hospital from a local, legitimate pharmacy. I took one pill in the afternoon and one in the evening – just these two pills were enough to put me in a coma for three weeks. After 21 days on life support, I finally woke up and was told that the medication I took to help with my asthma attack was not legitimate medicine, but instead falsified. My family were so terrified during my hospitalisation – my sister even told me that she had, for the first time, seen my dad in tears. As this was pre-internet and pre-mobile, none of my friends at my boarding school knew why I missed nearly the whole term. Upon my return they told me they were incredibly worried about me during my absence.
After my recovery, my worries, and my friends’ and family’s fears slowly turned into anger. An examination of the pill I took revealed that it didn’t contain any ingredients legitimate asthma medicine would, but it was actually made of a sedative. Before I was personally affected by fake medicines, I wasn’t aware that such huge amounts of falsified and poor-quality medicines were circulating in Africa, and globally. I really struggled with understanding why someone would manufacture and distribute falsified medicines which could cause serious harm to people’s well-being.
‘I was just a teenager then. I had no idea as to why anyone would make or sell a fake drug. As I learned more about fake medicines, I got really angry that someone actually thought my life was worth a few cents.’
My personal experience with fake medicines inspired me to undertake more research into drug manufacturing and quality assurance. I visited the Careers Guidance & Counselling officer at my school and asked him about professions in this area. He suggested that I could become a pharmacist. My parents, especially my dad, were always hopeful I would become a doctor one day, so they struggled with my wish to study pharmacy. However, I convinced them that my near-death experience had given me serious motivation to fight falsified medicines and to ensure that others would not suffer the same consequences I did. Up until now my parents are my greatest supporters.
The more I learned about the issue of falsified medicines, the more I realized the alarming dimensions of the problem, particularly in Nigeria. There is basically daily news coverage about falsified medicines and estimations suggest that over 15% of medicines circulating in the country are fake. I also heard from two of my colleagues that they experienced the tragic consequences of falsified medicines in their own families. One lost his grandmother due to substandard insulin, and another one sadly lost his mother who took falsified antibiotics which led to complications from pneumonia.
After graduating from high school, I studied Pharmacy and later on business with a focus on entrepreneurship at Yale University in the US. This is where I met two other students, and together we launched a start-up, called RxAll, two years ago. Our start-up aims at tackling the global falsified medicines epidemic by developing digital health solutions. We recently created a handheld nanoscanner™ platform called the RxScanner™ which enables users to verify the authenticity of their medicines, which subsequently prevents patients from taking any substandard or falsified drugs. So far, we have distributed around 70 devices to customers including food and drug administration agencies and hospitals in Africa & SE Asia, as well as providing drug testing to over 200 pharmacies across Africa and SE Asia. Just recently, we won the Global Challenge prize hosted by Hello Tomorrow, a French non-profit organisation, that supports emerging technologies and young entrepreneurs. Being recognized for my hard work during the past couple of years was a particularly proud moment for myself. It made me realize how far I have come since I started my fight against falsified medicines, yet so much more work needs to be done.
While I believe African countries, and particularly Nigeria, are making great progress in tackling falsified medicines, I believe that the problem is not yet recognized in its full dimension. While a lot of people of the middle and upper class in Nigeria are informed about the prevalence and dangers of fake medicines, more efforts need to be placed on educating and raising awareness in rural communities and low-income urban dwellers. There needs to be increased efforts to decentralise drug supply chain quality surveillance, with communities playing a central role. If they have the means to test and report on the quality of their purchased medicines, it would enable the government to react quicker and more effectively on containing the distribution and manufacturing of falsified medicines.