Last year, at least 70 children in Gambia lost their lives due to the consumption of four types of medicine manufactured in India, as revealed by a presidential commission of inquiry. The investigation found that the syrups contained dangerously high levels of diethylene glycol and ethylene glycol, chemicals commonly used as antifreeze, which proved to be fatal and led to acute kidney failure in many children.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) expressed its concern over the incident, deeming the quantities of these harmful substances in the medicines as “unacceptable.” In response to the tragedy, Gambia took swift action in October 2022 by recalling various medicines, including all cough and cold syrups in circulation, as well as all products from the Indian pharmaceutical company, Maiden Pharmaceuticals, the source of the contaminated syrups.
The inquiry further highlighted a significant lapse in the process, revealing that the medicines had not been registered with the country’s medicines control agency before being imported, a violation of regulations that could have potentially prevented this catastrophe. The commission emphasized the urgent need to establish a quality control laboratory to thoroughly test all imported medicines before they are made available to the public.
Addressing the alarming incident, the Health Minister acknowledged the need for crucial improvements in Gambia’s healthcare system. Among the proposed measures are the establishment of a school of pharmacy at the university to ensure better-trained professionals and stricter control of medicines in circulation to prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future. Additionally, the Gambian government is actively exploring legal avenues to seek compensation from the Indian pharmaceutical laboratory responsible for producing the deadly drugs.
In the wake of the health scandal, India took decisive action, shutting down the Maiden Pharmaceuticals factory located in northern India in October 2022. The case is set to be heard in Gambia starting in October.
Early in 2023, the WHO issued a call for “immediate and coordinated action” to eliminate non-compliant and falsified medicines, with particular focus on contaminated cough syrups, to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in other countries. Tragically, the death toll has risen to include 300 children in Gambia, Indonesia, and Uzbekistan, underscoring the urgent need for effective measures to address this grave issue.