Implications, Toxicology

84 Children Are Killed by Medicine in Nigeria (New York Times)

Published: February 6, 2009

DAKAR, Senegal — A toxic chemical mixed into a teething medicine for babies has killed at least 84 children in Nigeria, health officials there said Friday, more than tripling the toll in a wave of infant deaths that began in late November.

The children died after taking a medicine called My Pikin Baby Teething Mixture, a syrup for teething pain, according to Nigeria’s Health Ministry. Health officials said that a batch of the medicine that went on sale in November contained diethylene glycol, an industrial solvent and an ingredient in antifreeze and brake fluid.

The chemical looks, smells and tastes like glycerin, a sweet syrup commonly used in a wide range of medicines, foods and toothpaste, and counterfeiters enhance their profit by substituting diethylene glycol, which is relatively cheap, for the more expensive but harmless glycerin.

The chemical causes kidney and liver damage, as well as attacking the central nervous system, causing paralysis that hampers breathing. Children in Nigeria began to get sick in November with unexplained fevers and vomiting. Some stopped urinating and many had diarrhea. Across the country children with similar symptoms turned up at hospitals amid rising anger and panic.

The high concentration of the syrupy liquid in the teething medicine has made it even more deadly — three-quarters of the children made sick by the medicine have died, the Health Ministry said.

“The poison has caused many deaths in children between the ages of 2 months and 7 years old in Nigeria,” Babatunde Osotimehin, Nigeria’s minister of health, said in a statement. “The death of any Nigerian child is a great loss to the nation.”

Investigators at Nigeria’s National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control have traced the diethylene glycol to an unlicensed chemical dealer in Lagos, who sold the syrup to the maker of the teething medicine, Barewa Pharmaceuticals. The company has been shut down, and investigators have pulled off pharmacy shelves hundreds of bottles of the tainted medicine, but it remains unclear how much of the medicine was manufactured.

Diethylene glycol has figured in mass poisoning cases across the globe. In Panama, 365 people were killed after taking medicine inadvertently tainted with the chemical in a government factory in 2006. The sweet but deadly syrup was labeled glycerin, but it was in fact diethylene glycol from a factory in China. Dozens of children in Haiti died a decade ago after taking contaminated medicine for fevers. In 1990, 109 children died in Nigeria after taking medicine tainted with a similar compound.

Nigeria’s often lax enforcement of counterfeiting laws and its corruption-riddled bureaucracy left the country’s pharmacies full of tainted or fake drugs for decades. But since democratic rule returned in 1999, the government has been cracking down on makers of counterfeit or dangerous medicine.

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