30th May 2017
Marc has been credited with saving the lives of over nine million people worldwide. His single-use syringe has prevented the spread of blood-borne infections and his charity SafePoint is dedicated to educating the world about the dangers of syringe re-use.
In the last ten years Marc Koska has been to India 43 times, travelled to 64 developing countries, battled with the World Health Organization and been awarded an OBE. So getting a moment with him was a real privilege.
Marc sits opposite and opens his laptop. On the screen is a picture of a monk, who is glancing out of the frame with his orange tunic held together by a bulldog clip. Marc tells us that the monk is from a village called Roka in Cambodia. “He has become our poster boy for unsafe syringes. He’s 82, celibate and is the spiritual leader of the whole valley with approximately 1,000 people and he’s HIV positive. How? Because the local doctor was using the same syringe over and over again whilst treating patients.” Earlier this year Marc travelled with the BBC to Roka, a remote village in Cambodia where 272 residents contracted HIV because of the re-use of syringes spreading the disease.
This is exactly the sort of thing Marc has worked most of his life to stop. It was in 1984 when he was working on a Caribbean island as a forensic model maker that an idea came to him. “I arrived there in ’82 and HIV was identified in ’81. All the US media could talk about was this new killer disease that was going to wipe out the planet. Every restaurant changed to plastic cutlery, there were ‘sprays’ in every toilet for the seats, no-one really knew what was going on.” It was on the island that he read a story in The Guardian about how one day syringes would be a huge transmission route for HIV and other viruses. “I knew then exactly what I wanted to do. I read everything I could about the disease and spent the next three years finding out about the problem.” Those three years were spent back in England where he worked as a painter and decorator and then spent all his spare time in a library, or meeting syringe manufacturers, finding out about pricing structures, travelling to immunisation camps, factories, warehouses.
He said, “I made sure I knew as much as possible that there was to know about the syringe and what it had to do.” He concluded that the solution to the problem of a multi-use syringe had to be simple, made on existing machinery and importantly, sold at the same price. He spent the next few years sourcing manufacturers, searching out funding streams and making his idea a reality. Eventually he designed a syringe (K1) that could be made on existing equipment but with a small, very important modification… it would fall apart after one use. However it took 14 years more to sell his first syringe. The reason for this Marc explains is that “Manufacturers make money. Syringes are a commodity. They weren’t interested in making safer syringes because there was no guarantee that they would sell.” The turning point however, was his first sale to UNICEF in 2001. They started to use the auto-disable syringes and that gave great credibility to the product.
During those frustrating 14 years Marc travelled the world witnessing bad practice again and again. This gave him the focus to keep going and bring the syringe to market to help stop the spread of Aids and other serious diseases. He moved back to his laptop and showed us a video filmed on a hidden camera in a hospital in Tanzania. A teenager walks into a small room, the hidden camera pans and we see the nurse looking at his notes. Marc informs us that this young man has HIV and syphilis. The nurse takes a syringe from the tray and administers the drug. “You can see she has trouble penetrating the patient’s skin because the needle has been used numerous times before.” he tells us. The teenager gets up and leaves. The nurse returns the syringe to the tray. Moments later a mother turns up with her one-year-old daughter. The nurse turns and picks up the same syringe and uses it on the child. Watching the video we find ourselves shouting at the nurse not to use the syringe, but this happens daily in many hospitals around the world, according to Marc. “What is really odd in places like India and Africa, is that there are lots of precautions people take with regard to matters of hygiene that they wouldn’t dream of transgressing. For example, a mother wouldn’t offer her drinking cup to her child, and they wouldn’t dream of sharing a toothbrush. So why share a syringe?”
Marc knew that to effect change, cultural shifts had to be made which was why in 2005 he founded SafePoint, a registered charity dedicated to educating the public about the dangers of reusing needles. One of the trust’s first campaigns was in India, but the minister of health, Dr Anbumani Ramadoss had refused to see him. He informed the media and national newspapers who led with the headlines ‘Ramadoss refuses to see Syringe Guru.’ More than 240 newspapers printed the story within five days. TV and radio were also asking ‘who is this syringe guru?’ and ‘why will the minister not meet him?’ This exposure helped Marc spread his message of ‘One Injection, One Syringe’ and people listened. At the same time they released a video to back up the campaign and this culminated in a meeting with Dr Ramadoss, who then made a landmark announcement to put a policy in place for the recommendation of auto-disable syringes in government hospitals and health centres throughout India.
Another huge success was with the World Health Organization (WHO). After years of lobbying Marc recalls, “I was at a conference with Margaret Chan the director general of the World Health Organization. I wouldn’t leave her alone for two days until she agreed to see me for a formal meeting. I explained to her exactly how we could effect change and save millions of lives each year through the use of single-use syringes. I said to her that if you write the policy, I’ll make this whole thing work.” Following the discussion WHO started a global campaign in 2015 to eradicate the dirty needle. The new guidelines stipulated that every injection must come under scrutiny and be safely engineered. The consequences of this over time will be huge, preventing great misery, savings millions of lives as well saving billions of dollars throughout the world.
Marc has sold more than six billion single-use syringes since the first sales back in 2001, he has opened the eyes of governments around the world and influenced the World Health Organization but he is still not satisfied, mainly because of the inertia of global medical businesses to fully embrace the concept. Through his inventions, his persistence and his dogged determination he has saved the lives of millions and before we left he shared with us his latest projects, the next generation of syringes, needles and bottles that will be easier to make, store and transport, saving time, money and most importantly lives.