Braille and Healthcare Packaging

July 30, 2008 – 6:43 am

The reading system that Frenchman Louis Braille devised in 1821 dramatically changed the life of the blind and visually impaired. The code’s tactile features enabled them to read with their hands – after they had learned the Braille alphabet. Louis Braille based his research on an earlier form of the code, which had been developed to help Napoleon’s soldiers read and write messages in complete silence in the dark, without having to resort to light. And even in the age of sheer endless multimedia possibilities, Braille is still the most important medium of information for blind and visually-impaired people.

Just a few years ago, the European Union also realized that and now requires Braille on most pharmaceutical packaging. But implementing the raised dots on folding cartons can pose challenges.

Here are a few facts to consider:

  • First there is the space issue. Each Braille character consists of six dots, positioned like the figure “six” on a die. So this encoding scheme needs quite a bit of space. An area of 6 x 1 cm is required for 10 Braille characters, but as most names are longer than that, only a select amount of information can be embossed on the medical packaging.
  • Embossing is an expensive manufacturing process, and it can cause defects in the packaging. This method can produce cracks on the carton’s surface and can damage the print, making it illegible and visually unattractive for the majority of the population.
  • And then there is the dot height dilemma. While a minimum dot height of 0.5 mm can be achieved in book printing, this cannot be realized on folding cartons.  “A higher Braille dot height will be difficult to maintain in production and will enlarge the problem of damaging the print,” says Dieter Moessner, prepress team leader at Carl Edelmann GmbH & Co. KG, a supplier of folding cartons to the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries in Europe.
  • Furthermore, the tactile capabilities of the individual Braille reader vary, as the sense of touch is influenced by environmental conditions, such as the time of day or the temperature.

The European Directive 2004/27/EC that went into effect in October 2005 in all EU Member States requires pharmaceutical cartons to show the name of the medicinal product, and, if necessary, its strength in Braille code. The name in Braille only has to appear on the outer carton, not on the immediate packaging such as ampoules or bottles. Companies are also required to make the package leaflet available to the patient upon request in a format that is appropriate for the blind and partially sighted. Packaging for medicine that is used exclusively by healthcare professionals, such as vaccines, does not require Braille labelling. In Germany, pharmaceutical products produced in small batches (less than 7500 units per year) and medicines not exceeding a volume of 20 ml or 20 g are also exempted.

Some homecare products also carry a Braille code. Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, for instance, embosses Braille markings on the base of its inhalers to identify different asthma medications. Also for identification purposes, GlaxoSmithKline produces pressurized metered dose inhalers with raised markings on its plastic canister holders, although they are not actual Braille markings. As the market for homecare products continues to surge, the use of Braille on the packaging, and perhaps even on the device itself, may well stir up debate.

Find out more about the use of Braille on pharmaceutical packaging by logging on to the European Carton Manufacturers Association’s (ECMA) website at www.ecma.org.

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