Gambian docs’ struggle to ban poisonous Indian syrup

BANJUL: Final July, greater than 20 youngsters had been admitted to the Paediatric Emergency Unit of the Edward Francis Small Educating Hospital in Gambia with kidney failure. Many obtained dialysis, the standard therapy.

Practically all died.

Medical doctors had been mystified, 4 of them informed Reuters: They normally see one or two such instances a yr. Guide paediatrician Vivian Muoneke, a 33-year veteran, was scared.

“I had by no means seen something like this,” she stated. “It was like an epidemic.”

It was the wet season; Gambian well being ministry officers thought the issue was contaminated water. However Muoneke and her colleagues suspected the kids had been poisoned.

Three months later, the deaths of greater than 70 Gambian youngsters from Acute Kidney Harm had been linked by world well being officers to cough syrups made in India and contaminated with ethylene glycol (EG) and diethylene glycol (DEG). The sufferers had been the primary of about 300 youngsters killed worldwide final yr by contaminated cough syrups, not all of them made in India. It was the deadliest complete poisoning on report from toxins which were identified to scientists for many years.

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As authorities seek for a wrongdoer on this case, the story of how the Gambian docs raised the alarm, then pushed for weeks for well being officers to check for chemical poisoning and ban cough syrup gross sales, has not been beforehand reported.

Delays in testing the medicines price weeks. When accomplished with assist from the World Well being Group (WHO), the checks confirmed the medicines contained extraordinarily harmful ranges of the toxins and had been bought in bottles wrongly labelled as WHO-approved, Reuters discovered.

Pharmaceutical consultants have warned for years about lax oversight of medicine made in India, whose trade provides practically half of the generic medicines utilized in Africa. India’s well being regulator says it discovered no fault with the medicines.

The Gambian case seems to be the primary documented instance of DEG poisoning from imported moderately than domestically produced medicines, a bunch of consultants from Gambia and the U.S. Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention stated. The tragedy reveals the difficulties confronted by a poorly resourced nation in figuring out and eradicating dangerous merchandise, the consultants stated.

“There’s not sufficient consequence when your medication have been discovered to fail high quality checks in a small African nation,” stated Jude Nwokike, vp of the Selling the High quality of Medicines Program at U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP), a non-profit partly funded by the US that helps set drug-making requirements globally. “That actually wants to alter.”

Indian authorities closed the manufacturing facility that made the medication in October. Authorities inspectors discovered their producer, Maiden Prescription drugs Ltd, had violated guidelines “throughout its manufacturing and testing actions.” Maiden Managing Director Naresh Kumar Goyal informed Reuters he had “not executed something flawed” and didn’t reply to additional questions. He was eager to reopen his plant.

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Goyal has since been convicted of producing lapses that occurred a decade in the past. Courtroom paperwork didn’t be aware how he pleaded.

In December, India’s well being regulator stated it did its personal checks and located no toxins within the syrups. Authorities officers stated the WHO had did not show a causal hyperlink to the Gambia deaths and accused the company of denigrating its $41 billion pharmaceutical trade, in accordance with a letter from the regulator to the well being company reviewed by Reuters.

“It’s completely clear that WHO has not established … a direct hyperlink between the consumption of the involved cough syrups made in India and the deaths of kids in Gambia,” stated India’s well being ministry in an announcement to Reuters.

The WHO says establishing that hyperlink isn’t the purpose.

“The problem isn’t about proof of causation,” stated WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris. The toxins discovered within the Maiden syrups “ought to by no means be ingested by human beings.”

Related poisonings – involving cough syrups made in Indonesia and by a unique firm in India – emerged later, in Indonesia and Uzbekistan. Police in these nations have arrested and charged chemical compounds merchants, importers and regulators with improperly promoting industrial-grade chemical compounds as appropriate for pharmaceutical use, or failing to check the merchandise.

In January the WHO sounded the alarm over the protection of cough syrups globally.

“Cyanide in a bottle”

In 1937, DEG utilized in an antibiotic killed 107 individuals in the US. Since then, the toxins have been discovered to trigger at the very least 16 mass poisonings worldwide.

India awaits WHO data on any cough syrup hyperlink to Gambia deaths

DEG is utilized in automotive brake fluid and radiators. Cats and canine attracted by the sweetness typically die after licking it off the bottom, stated Leo Schep, a toxicologist at New Zealand consultancy ToxInform who printed a peer-reviewed paper on DEG poisoning.

“It’s like placing cyanide in a bottle of paracetamol,” Schep stated.

After the U.S. deaths, American lawmakers empowered the Meals and Drug Administration to verify medication for security earlier than they go on sale. Different wealthy nations have equally sturdy checks.

However Gambia is one in all Africa’s smallest and poorest nations. It has no pharma trade, no technique of testing imported medication, and simply over two dozen pharmacists registered for two.5 million individuals.

The primary case at Muoneke’s hospital was a two-year-old boy on July 7. Inside per week, 5 extra youngsters had been admitted.

The hospital had sufficient dialysis catheters for 3 sufferers, stated deputy chief medical officer Abubacarr Jagne. He drove to neighbouring Senegal in the hunt for extra, ultimately ordering 9 from Nigeria.

The well being ministry alerted the WHO to the kids’s instances, and the company supplied assist. There was an opportunity E.coli micro organism in flood water was inflicting the deaths, the docs stated, however they’d by no means seen E.coli infections as deadly.

The sufferers’ histories confirmed the kids had taken syrup for minor sicknesses days earlier than they had been hospitalised. They quickly started vomiting and had diarrhoea. Then they stopped urinating. Drowsiness set in, they misplaced consciousness. Their pupils grew to become dilated and stuck. Blood checks confirmed poor kidney operate.

But even because the docs’ proof of poisons mounted, Gambian authorities officers informed Reuters they wished extra proof. For 2 months, the federal government didn’t point out probably dangerous syrups in public statements.

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“For us it was psychological torture,” stated Muoneke. “We took their histories and requested them in the event that they took the medication, and we simply knew” that the syrup was the wrongdoer. If checks for toxins had been executed in late July or early August, a gross sales ban might have saved dozens of kids, she stated.

Well being Minister Ahmadou Lamin Samateh didn’t reply to that time however informed Reuters in November he acted quick when he grew to become conscious that medication had been the most probably trigger.

“We’re not seeing instances, so did the federal government and the group do properly? I believe we did extraordinarily properly,” he stated. The ministry’s director of well being providers, Mustapha Bittaye, stated it will not remark additional forward of a authorities report on the matter.


Binta Ceesay retains an image on her cellphone of her triplets Ali, Moustapha and Mohamed, shortly after they had been born.

Final July, her seven-month-old infants caught a chilly. Ceesay stated she purchased them drugs. Three days later, they’d diarrhoea and had been vomiting. They stopped passing urine. On July 26, all three had been admitted to a hospital south of Banjul.

Ali’s mouth and nostril started to bleed, she stated. “He couldn’t do something. It was like his physique was frozen.”

Ali died on July 29. Two days later, Moustapha died.

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Ceesay led a reporter to an overgrown cemetery the place the 2 boys are buried just a few yards aside in unmarked graves, in accordance with a standard custom in conservative Muslim Gambia.

She took Mohamed to Muoneke’s hospital. Medical doctors requested if he had taken any medicinal syrups: She confirmed them the medicines. They took photographs and confiscated them, she stated.

Medical doctors on the hospital stated well being ministry officers eliminated many case information for investigation. The ministry didn’t reply to a request for touch upon Ceesay’s account.

Over 10 days in Banjul, Mohamed recovered. However months on, he nonetheless cries when he urinates. His mom worries the episode has affected his growth.


The medication had been in a batch of fifty,000 imported bottles of 4 syrups containing energetic substances together with paracetamol, which is called acetaminophen in the US. Made by Maiden, they had been bought as Promethazine Oral Resolution, Kofexmalin Child Cough Syrup, Makoff Child Cough Syrup and Magrip N Chilly Syrup. Maiden is predicated in India’s Haryana state and says it exports medicines to greater than 40 nations.

Regulatory paperwork reviewed by Reuters present its manufacturing practices had fallen quick at the very least thrice. In 2011, India’s Bihar state blacklisted the corporate for 5 years for promoting substandard and “spurious” (adulterated) drugs. In March 2022, two medication manufactured by Maiden had been discovered by Kerala state to overlook high quality requirements. Final month, an Indian courtroom sentenced Goyal and one other govt to two-and-half years in jail for high quality violations in medication bought to Vietnam a decade in the past. It gave them a month to enchantment.

India probing cough syrup linked to Gambia youngster deaths

Regardless of this report, Haryana’s Division of Meals and Drug Administration (FDA) licensed Maiden to supply for export. Requested why, the Haryana FDA and India’s well being ministry didn’t reply.

The packaging on Gambia’s Maiden cough syrups was marked with the WHO’s emblem and the wording “WHO-GMP licensed,” photographs issued by the company present.

The WHO informed Reuters Maiden had no proper to make use of this wording or its emblem, a message the company’s legal professionals have despatched to the corporate, in accordance with emails reviewed by Reuters. The company doesn’t present certificates exhibiting corporations adjust to Good Manufacturing Practices, Harris informed Reuters.


Acute Kidney Harm (AKI) can vary from minor lack of operate to finish kidney failure, which is what Muoneke and her colleagues had been seeing within the youngsters.

To show medicines had been the trigger, they wanted the medication examined and sufferers autopsied. However submit mortem examinations of our bodies are uncommon in Gambia, based mostly on the non secular perception they desecrate the physique earlier than burial.

Muoneke met dozens of bereaved dad and mom to attempt to persuade them. Two households agreed to 15-minute autopsies, however the outcomes weren’t launched by the hospital pathologist for a month.

On Aug. 6, the well being ministry despatched the primary of 89 samples of stools and urine from youngsters throughout Gambia to the Nationwide Public Well being Laboratories in Banjul. That lab couldn’t do the required checks, so some samples had been despatched to the Institut Pasteur in Senegal, 300 km (186 miles) away.

Ministry director Bittaye informed Reuters that solely 5 of those had dangerous E.coli.

“In case you are it now, with all the information and all of the sufferers, it extra factors away from E.coli,” he stated.

Then consideration turned to testing the medicines. On Aug. 8 the ministry, with assist from the WHO, despatched drugs samples to the Centre Anti Poison du Senegal in Dakar. Fearful a courier would take too lengthy, officers drove them there themselves.

With instances arriving nearly day by day, the hospital on Aug. 9 issued an announcement warning individuals to not use any drug bought from a pharmacy with out checking with a well being facility first. However the well being ministry was silent on the syrups.

Multi-organ failure

By late August, Muoneke was seeing about 9 instances per week, dropping sufferers, however nonetheless ready for outcomes on the medicines.

The submit mortem experiences confirmed the kids had suffered the destruction not simply of the kidneys, but in addition of the spleen, liver, lungs and pancreas, Muoneke stated. The extent of the injury was one other indicator of chemical poisoning.

Due to the dad and mom’ issues about submit mortem exams, the autopsies weren’t as thorough because the docs wished, Muoneke stated. An entire post-mortem would take at the very least an hour, stated Barbarajean Magnani, a professor of anatomic and medical pathology emerita on the Tufts College College of Drugs within the U.S.

Muoneke’s then head of division, Professor Egbuna Olakunle Obidike, met Bittaye from the well being ministry on Aug. 31 to share the information concerning the organ failures.

“I introduced it strongly to him that the details at our disposal clearly pointed to medicines,” he stated.

However the Centre Anti Poison du Senegal, which was testing the medicines, informed Gambian authorities it couldn’t check for EG and DEG.

On Sept. 4, the well being ministry launched an announcement concerning the AKI deaths. To the docs’ frustration, it didn’t point out the dangers of paracetamol syrup however it did discuss with unsanitary water, recommending individuals wash their palms and prepare dinner meals properly.

Muoneke stated she met well being minister Samateh on the hospital days later to “let him see why he ought to ban the medication for a trial.”

Lastly, on Sept. 7, the well being ministry informed hospitals and regional well being officers to ban each model of paracetamol syrup from sale. Samateh didn’t say what triggered that or clarify why the Sept. 4 assertion had not talked about the drug threat.

“Irreparable injury”

The following day, the federal government and the WHO despatched the drugs samples 2,000 km away to the U.S. Pharmacopeia lab in Ghana, which might check for toxins. These discovered EG and DEG in some, however couldn’t decide how a lot.

So the group despatched drugs samples to a different location: the WHO-approved Intertek Laboratory in Reinach, Switzerland.

The outcomes, on Sept. 26, confirmed harmful ranges of DEG and EG in all 4 samples produced by Maiden, the WHO stated. The lab additionally examined 19 samples made by different producers that youngsters in Gambia might have taken.

“All besides the merchandise from Maiden examined destructive for the contaminants,” spokesperson Harris stated.

That fortnight, Gambia noticed solely two new AKI instances, which the minister later stated was proof its ban had succeeded.

The WHO stated it instantly shared the data with the authorities in India and Gambia, in addition to Maiden, and printed its findings on Oct. 5.

The following day, India’s well being ministry stated it was the accountability of the importing nation to check medicines they purchase from India.

In ensuing weeks Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s authorities requested the WHO to show the hyperlink between the medication and the deaths – an evaluation the U.N. well being company says is all the way down to Gambia. Toxicology consultants stated establishing conclusive proof might be troublesome even when the Gambian authorities had been capable of conduct the in depth autopsies that folks didn’t need.

The WHO in flip requested India for full knowledge on its checks of Maiden’s medication, however has not obtained this, in accordance with emails seen by Reuters and statements from the company to Reuters.

In December, India’s then medication controller normal, V.G. Somani, informed the WHO the worldwide well being company’s alert had been untimely as a result of the hyperlink to the deaths was not confirmed.

The warning, Somani protested, had “adversely impacted the picture of India’s pharmaceutical merchandise throughout the globe, and precipitated irreparable injury to the provision chain of pharmaceutical merchandise,” in accordance with an electronic mail seen by Reuters.

Gambia’s well being ministry didn’t remark about Somani’s criticism. The WHO didn’t reply immediately when requested about Somani’s electronic mail, however stated it will proceed working with governments to take away unsafe medicines from use.

“I need to go residence”

For some youngsters, phrase of Gambia’s ban on cough syrups got here too late.

Three-year-old Lamin Sagnia was normally filled with vitality, his father informed Reuters, gesturing to the household sofa that he stated Lamin had torn by leaping about. The boy liked jokes, and would sit on his father’s lap when he drove his outdated Mercedes across the neighbourhood.

On Sept. 7, Lamin developed a fever.

Fearing it was malaria, his father, Ebrima Sagnia, drove Lamin to the Valuable Drug Retailer in Serekunda. A health care provider, Consolation Smith, advisable a cough and paracetamol syrup. The supervisor didn’t inform her till the subsequent afternoon they had been banned, she stated.

“If I had realised this sooner, I’d not have bought him the medication.”

Lamin took the medicines that night time. By the subsequent day he was unable to urinate. Sagnia drove his son to the Banjul hospital.

Lamin was sleeping repeatedly. He didn’t reply to repeated rounds of dialysis.

Sagnia left his son’s bedside briefly to purchase bananas, milk and juice, however Lamin lay along with his tongue out, unable to eat. “He was trying elsewhere totally different from this world,” Sagnia stated.

On Sept. 12, Lamin got here spherical and spoke.

“Dad, I need to go residence,” he informed his father.

“Very quickly we are going to go residence,” Sagnia responded.

Lamin died the subsequent day.

Sagnia is now a spokesman for a coalition of fogeys calling for systemic reforms. The federal government initially supplied households 14,000 dalasis ($200) every, he and one other dad or mum stated. The households rejected the sum.

Their fundamental aim, he stated: to make sure this by no means occurs once more.