Featured Profiles

The Syringe That Saved A Million Lives

Marc Koska is the Founder of the Safepoint Trust and the inventor of the first auto-disable syringe in the world that was successfully mainstreamed. Since beginning his work in the late 1980s, Koska has been credited with saving 10 million lives, changing WHO policy and ensuring best practices on the ground through advocacy and campaigning.


Marc Andrew Koska was born in the city of Bournemouth. He attended Stowe School, an independent boarding school for boys (now co-educational), in the village of Stowe near Buckingham, in Buckinghamshire. After completing his education, Koska said, “I didn’t want to go to university, so I thought I would wander around. I did a season skiing, a bit of sailing, typical spoilt brat stuff. I ended up in the Caribbean. I was having a blast.”


But that was short-lived, while he was in the Caribbean, he found himself amid the global HIV/AIDS crisis. While there, he accidentally stumbled upon the newspaper article that would be the catalyst for a 30-year journey to turn a great idea into a globally adopted reality. The article predicted the spread of HIV through the reuse of medical syringes.


“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.” After that, Koska spent three years in England where he worked as a decorator and painter and spent all of his spare time in a library or meeting syringe manufacturers, finding out their prices, travelling to immunisation camps, factories, warehouses to learn more about the issue.


Koska said, “I made sure I knew as much as possible that there was to know about the syringe and what it had to do.” In his research, he concluded that the solution to a multi-use syringe had to be simple, made on existing machinery and, importantly, sold at an affordable price. He continued, “What I had observed is that syringes are used a number of times on innocent patients, from one patient to another. If someone is ill, that illness can go from one person to the other who is injected.”


Koska recalled an incident he captured on a hidden camera in a hospital in Tanzania, “The clip showed a teenager diagnosed with HIV and Syphilis walking into the room. The nurse can be seen taking a syringe from the tray and administering the drug to him. The syringe used by the nurse has trouble penetrating the patient’s skin as the needle has been used countless times before. The patient leaves and the nurse returns the syringe to the tray. The next patient walks in, a mother with her one-year-old daughter. The clip further shows the nurse picking up the same syringe and using it on the child.”


This bizarre incident narrates the horrifying role that injections play in the spread of diseases. Every year, an estimated 20 million people worldwide contract HIV, typhoid, malaria, hepatitis and other diseases while getting medical care.


Koska knew he had to rectify this mistake and spent the next few years hunting for manufacturers, finding funding streams and turning his idea into reality. The end product was a syringe (K1) that could be made on existing equipment but with a minor, significant modification that it would fall apart after one use. K1 syringes cannot be used more than once ensuring that the next patient has a sterile and safe injection.


His journey to launch the product was paved with a myriad of challenges. Koska said he received a lot of resistance, saying, “We’re not ready for this radical change yet, so everything was thrown at me: from death-threats, to factories being bull-dozed on opening, to bribery and organisations taking away tenders and contracts from us. I went through the whole range of challenges on the journey.”


Koska’s invention took 14 years to take root that eventually led to his first sale. He explained the delay, “Manufacturers make money as syringes are a commodity. They weren’t interested in making safer syringes because there was no guarantee that they would sell.”  However, this all changed when Koska made his first sale to UNICEF in 2001. They started using the auto-disable syringes, and that gave great credibility to the product.


In 2005 Koska founded The SafePoint Trust, a registered charity dedicated to educating children about the issue of reusing needles. One of the trust’s first campaigns was in India, but Dr Anbumani Ramadoss, Minister of Health, refused to see him. He informed the media, which immediately published the headlines, ‘Ramadoss refuses to see Syringe Guru.’ More than 240 newspapers printed the story within just five days. This exposure helped Koska spread his message of ‘One Injection, One Syringe’ and the people of India listened.


Simultaneously a video was released to back up the campaign that culminated in a meeting with the Health Minister, who then made a landmark announcement to put a policy in place to recommend auto-disable syringes in health centres and government hospitals in India.


Another considerable success was the World Health Organization’s global campaign in 2015 to eradicate the dirty needle. After years of lobbying, Koska recalled, “I was at a conference with Margaret Chan, the Director General of the World Health Organization. I wouldn’t leave her alone 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.” This led to the global campaign with new guidelines stipulating that every injection must come under scrutiny and be safely engineered.


Koska has sold more than six billion single-use syringes since his first sales back in 2001. He has received multiple awards, including the Fogarty Institute for Innovation’s Tech Award, The Economist’s Innovation Award, and the Order of the British Empire for his contribution to global healthcare.


In conclusion, his advice for budding entrepreneurs is, “Get ready to be special, and I don’t want to come out with all the clichés—be persistent, follow your dreams and it will come true—because, sure, all those are true, but it will only get you to the middle ground. To be special, you have to really value the potential results of your dreams rather than money and security, which does not come with just any job.”