Can something as simple as proper packaging save lives? The reverse is certainly true.

The World Health Organization recommends that tetanus vaccines are stored in temperatures from 2-8°C, otherwise the vaccine might become not only unusable, but a health hazard. In areas where there is vast supply, losing a shipment is not the end of the world; however, a sudden disaster can lead to no supply, and the worst possible scenario: the loss of lives.

But that worst-case scenario is set to become a risk of the past. Newly commercialized methods of packaging allow for temperature stability for up to five days, overcoming probably more than 90% of disruptions in supply. The highest level of security can be obtained through the wonder of modern technology called the Internet of Things. The little pack of medicines, hidden deep in the air cargo pallet, can now send data to doctors in Kampala, telling them how warm or cold it is in the transit warehouse, and how long it has been stuck at the airport in Addis Ababa.

Consider the following real life example: During transit of a thermal pallet shipper, Henry Schein Inc. – the world’s largest provider of healthcare products and services to office-based dental, animal health and medical practitioners – was experiencing significant customs delays at a location in the Middle East. The important shipment of vaccines, diagnostics and antibiotics was at risk to become waste, and lost to those expecting and needing the supplies. However, the data provided by web-based technology alarmed Henry Schein that the packaging was reaching its thermal limits. Through close collaboration with the transportation partner the required reconditioning prior to delivery to customers was ensured, all occurring without any damage. Smart packaging prevented this shipment from spoiling in transit, which would have caused significant shortages of medical supplies to the areas of need.

Security packaging with anti-counterfeiting technologies plays also a vital role in fighting the $200 billion counterfeit drug industry. Smart packing will alleviate health risks associated with adulterated drugs, the catch-all term for contaminated, unsterile, unsafe, spoiled or expired products. According to a study published by The Lancet on 2,634 malaria drug samples, more than one-third failed as substandard after chemical analysis, and about 20% were found to be wholly counterfeit. Today’s packaging design goes far beyond material quality but helps to focus on improved barrier properties to moisture, UV light, oxygen, shock and carbon dioxide.

The world of connected and communicating things offers unprecedented perspectives into life protection and healthcare. Ultimately, packing will carry all vital information, ranging from the evidence that the product is genuine, to the conditions the goods experienced during the sometimes very long journey from the factory to patients and users.

This will not be the end, however, of the development. Increasingly popular wearables in the form of smart watches, glasses and even textiles will not only be able to receive and analyse the data sent by the smart packages, but produce and communicate individual information, which at some point will allow for individualized drugs and treatments.

Author: Wolfgang Lehmacher is Director, Head of Supply Chain and Transport, Mobility Industries at the World Economic Forum.

Image: Various medicine pills in their original packaging are seen in Ljubljana REUTERS/Srdjan Zivulovic