IMPACT
02/24/2016 10:37 am ET

Used Pill Bottles Help Those Who Lack Medicine Storage In Malawi

In much of the world, keeping medications clean, safe and dry is a real struggle.

While American medicine cabinets -- and landfills -- fill up with used pill bottles, many people in developing countries are being sent home with prescription medication wrapped in paper or nothing at all.

A shortage of those little orange containers in countries like Malawi, in Africa, means that many people have a hard time keeping their medications clean, dry and out of reach of children.

So when Richard Stephens, co-founder of The Malawi Project, looked into his cluttered medicine cabinet one day, something clicked.

In March, the Indianapolis-based charity put out a call for Americans to mail in their used pill bottles, with the labels stripped off. The Malawi Project would then ship the bottles directly to medical facilities in Malawi. 

The idea was a win-win: the empty bottles wouldn't end up in local landfills and Malawi, a poor county with a population of about 16 million that has been hard-hit by HIV-Aids, would get a simple solution to an every day struggle. 

Roel Smart via Getty Images

The charity was bombarded with donations. Within a month, more than 20,000 pill bottles had poured in. That number quickly climbed to 500,000, then a million. 

Between March and November 2015, volunteers loaded up several 40-foot containers with more than a million prescription bottles. They were shipped to Malawi at a total cost of approximately $15,000.

“This massive outpouring of support gives us the opportunity to offer prescription containers to every one of the 700 government run medical facilities (in) the nation,” Bryon Bhagwandin, president of the Malawi Project, said in a release.

In November, after being overwhelmed by the response, the charity was forced to end its pill container program -- among the most successful in the charity's history -- to focus on other important projects, including famine relief and purchasing medical supplies. They have now received more than two million bottles. 

In an interview with NPR, Dr. Sallie Permar, an associate professor at Duke University Medical Center, praised the charity's project and stressed the importance of having safe containers to protect medication from the elements. 

"This project could have a considerable impact on the lives of Malawians who must take daily medication to maintain their health, such as blood pressure medicine or antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV," Permar said.

While The Malawi Project is no longer accepting pill containers, it has suggested donations be made to organizations doing similar work, including Matthew 25: Ministries in Cincinnati, and encouraged others to start their own programs.

So next time your prescription runs out, think twice before tossing those little orange containers in the trash.

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