A crime against humanity
Loyola graduate fights counterfeit drug problem in Sierra Leone
It’s easy to get rich peddling counterfeit drugs in Africa.
“All you need is talcum powder, limestone, flour, and the ability to compress the product into something that looks like a tablet,” explained Lawrence Blob, M.D., a 1972 graduate of Loyola who has fought the illicit trade in Sierra Leone for more than two years.
“You have to have the technology to duplicate the packaging of legitimate drugs,” he added. “Of course, a lot of people are very good at that.”
While a $1,000 investment in contraband such as cigarettes might yield $40,000, a $1,000 investment in counterfeit drugs could easily net upwards of $200,000.
Blob, who was a pre-medicine biology major at Loyola, established MediSolutions two years ago in Sierra Leone as a way of providing access to safe drugs imported from England. The products are submitted to a pharmacy review board and compared to known drugs to ensure their legitimacy.
“It’s a very expensive process, especially when competing against African counterfeiters who have no fear of any meaningful punishment. A raid of Ugandan counterfeiters eight years ago led to the arrest of five people, all of whom were released and slapped on the wrist with fines ranging from just $500 to $1,000,” he explained.
“There’s no deterrent. Some of these fake drugs wind up in pharmacies, but most are sold on the street by hawkers, and they’re all over the place.”
The consequences to public health couldn’t be direr. With conservative estimates placing up to 30 percent of all medications in West Africa as counterfeit, thousands of people suffer and die from illnesses that might otherwise be treated.
“A couple hundred thousand people in Africa die every year of malaria or tuberculosis as a result of the problems with fake medications,” Blob said. “It should really be a crime against humanity.”
MediSolutions survives because non-governmental organizations buy its medicines, Blob said. The company is committed to hiring only Sierra Leoneans. Currently employing 12, MediSolutions operates in the capital of Freetown, with plans to expand into the Sierra Leonean provinces.
Maada Sam-Kpakra, a pharmacist who works with Blob at MediSolutions, said the company’s vision is to provide “therapeutically efficacious pharmaceuticals,” and to do it in a way that makes them cost effective. He noted that the majority of Sierra Leoneans live on less than $1.50 a day.
“Apart from medicines, we also provide top quality medical devices, consumables, and other health-related products—a segment of our business that is gradually gaining momentum and helping with the availability of equipment,” Sam-Kpakra explained.
During the Ebola outbreak, MediSolutions provided medical equipment, disinfectants, and other supplies to the United Nations Development Program. Working with the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where Dr. Blob earned his medical degree in 1976, the company was able to bring medical supplies to the medical unit of Sierra Leone’s armed forces as it addressed the Ebola outbreak.
Blob, who grew up in Halethorpe, Md., and graduated from Cardinal Gibbons High School in Baltimore, spent most of his career practicing and teaching emergency medicine. He founded two health care businesses, which he sold to national companies. He has also served as a consultant for pharmaceutical companies, helping develop and conduct clinical trials.
The 66-year-old entrepreneur was introduced to the medical challenges of Africa when he befriended a Sierra Leonean named Abdulai Fofana, now deceased. Blob visited his friend’s hometown of Tombo Wala, considered by some to be the most impoverished community on the continent. He was shocked by what he saw.
“In Tombo Wala, you are surrounded by water and there’s no way to get to a larger city,” Blob said. “If you get sick in Tombo Wala, you die.”
Blob and Fofana invested $15,000 to rebuild a collapsing school before they began brainstorming ways of improving medical conditions.
“In Sierra Leone, the central cog in the wheel for health care is the pharmacy,” Blob explained. “There are very few physicians. Unfortunately, Ebola wiped out a third of them.”
Blob knows he faces an uphill battle against the counterfeiters. He remains undaunted.
“The people who make the biggest difference are those who are willing to fail and get up and keep going,” he said, crediting Loyola for helping to shape his world view. “I’ve always been that kind of person.”