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Death Of 66 Gambian Children From Cough Syrup Scandal Highlights The Need For Made In Africa Drugs

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Contaminated cough syrups by Maiden Pharmaceuticals Limited (Photo credit BBC)
Contaminated cough syrups by Maiden Pharmaceuticals Limited (Photo credit: BBC)

In 2022, many African countries continue to import drugs from India and America. This includes drugs as generic as painkillers to more complex antibiotics. However, the death of 66 Gambian children from a cough syrup scandal has left us asking why is it that Africa doesn’t produce some of these generic drugs.

On Wednesday 5 October 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a warning against four contaminated cough syrups made in India. The warning came after 66 children were believed to have died after consuming the cough syrups.

The drugs implicated in the scandal include Magrip N Cold Syrup, Makeoff Baby Cough Syrup, Kofexmalin Baby Cough Syrup, and Promethazine Oral Solution. All the drugs were products of Maiden Pharmaceuticals Limited in Haryana, India.

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According to the WHO, the pharmaceutical company failed to provide safety guarantees. Also, the company declined to answer quality concerns raised about the product. According to the WHO statement,

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“Laboratory analysis of the four products shows the presence of an unacceptable quantity of ethylene glycol and diethylene glycol contaminants.”

The two contaminating products are industrial compounds that are used as antifreeze in some commercial products. Diethylene glycol is also a great solvent for most insoluble substances. When consumed by humans, the outcome can be fatal. Africa is one of the primary destinations for most of Maiden Pharmaceuticals Limited’s products.

Some of the toxic effects of consuming these compounds include diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, headache, inability to pass urine, acute kidney injury, and altered mental state. Death may follow if there is no urgent intervention.

The cough syrup scandal is not a Gambian problem alone

Anil Vij, the Haryana Health Minister (Photo credit: Medical Dialogues)
Anil Vij, the Haryana Health Minister (Photo credit: Medical Dialogues)

While deaths have only been reported in the Gambia, there are fears that the contaminated cough syrups may have found their way to other African countries. Therefore, the WHO is calling on other African countries to increase surveillance and diligence in the drug supply chain.

The contaminants are colorless and almost odorless which makes it difficult to detect them from just a physical examination. Samples had to be sent from the Gambia to labs in Ghana and Senegal before their presence in the four questionable products was confirmed.

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It is unclear how the toxic chemicals ended up in the cough syrup. However, the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization which is India’s highest drug regulatory body has launched an investigation to ascertain the origin of the toxic chemicals in the drugs. Commenting on the issue, Anil Vij, the Haryana Health Minister said,

“The samples have been sent to the Central Drug Laboratory in Kolkata. After their report comes in and if there is something wrong, then we will take strict action.”

The government of the Gambia has banned the sale of contaminated cough syrups in the country. Also, the country has launched a door-to-door campaign to recall the contaminated cough syrup from homes that may still have them. Those that may still have the products are advised to stop using them immediately.

Justice for families that lost their children to the contaminated cough syrup

Over 60 families are still living in shock after the death of their children from the contaminated cough syrup. Thirty years old Mariam Kuyateh lost her 20-month-old son, Musa, in September after he was given the contaminated cough syrup. Sitting in her home in the suburb of Serrekunda, The Gambia’s largest city, she narrated her son’s ordeal to the BBC.

“It all started like flu. My husband bought the cough syrup after we saw the doctor. He took the drug and the flu stopped. However, he stopped passing urine. I took him back to the hospital and further tests were done. Eventually, they operated on him but he did not make it.”

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20-month-old Musa was the son of Mariam Kuyateh (Photo credit: Kuyateh's family/BBC)
20-month-old Musa was the son of Mariam Kuyateh (Photo credit: Kuyateh’s family/BBC)

Another victim of the contaminated cough syrup was five-month-old Aisha. Just like Musa, Aisha stopped passing urine after taking the contaminated cough syrup. Mariam Sisawo, Aisha’s mother took the little girl to the hospital.

Doctors examined Aisha’s bladder and told Sisawo there was nothing wrong with her daughter. After two more trips to the hospital, she was referred to a hospital in Banjul, the country’s capital which was 36 km from their home in Brikama. Aisha died there after five days of treatment.

28-year-old Mariam Sisawo lost her daughter Aisha (Photo credit: Omar Wally/BBC)
28-year-old Mariam Sisawo lost her daughter Aisha (Photo credit: Omar Wally/BBC)

The families that lost their children are asking for justice—but they are not the only ones. The atmosphere in the Gambia is tense and people are calling for the Health Minister Dr. Ahmadou Lamin Samateh to resign. Also, they are calling on the prosecution of those that imported the drugs into the country.

Call for made-in-Africa drugs

While many West African countries like Nigeria and Senegal have taken their fate into their hands with the manufacture of generic drugs, other countries in the region are lagging behind. Africa has the youngest population in the world. Therefore, there is no scarcity of manpower for pharmaceutical industries.

Obviously, the setting up of pharmaceutical industries is capital-intensive. However, the cost cannot overwhelm any African country if the governments of the respective African countries make it their priority. While the production of antibiotics and injectables may require more technical know-how, generic drugs should be off the import list.

The cessation of the import of generic drugs will have huge positive health and economic implications for Africa. Firstly, it will be easier for the government to monitor the distribution of drugs. In the case of an error like the contaminated syrup, it will be easier to track and recall such defective drugs.

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In 2019, African countries spent $14 billion on the importation of drugs. According to a 2021 report, about 75% of the drugs shipped to Africa come from India, the European Union, and China. Only 4.4% of drugs come from the United States.

This staggering expenditure can be redirected to infrastructural development. This can fast-track Africa’s ascend from a developing to a developed nation. Also, when Africa starts to make generic drugs, it will be shielded from supply chain disruptions such as the one experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the benefits of made-in-Africa drugs and a ban on the importation of generic drugs may seem glaring, why is it that most African leaders are not giving it a thought? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.

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