“My father died last week, and now my mother has been hospitalised with the same problem. I swear to God, if something happens to her, I will burn this hospital down,” says Yasmin, as her eyes well up with angry tears. She is among the hundreds of people whose family members have been affected by the contaminated drugs doing the rounds at Lahore’s hospitals.
The news of these mysterious deaths has been doing the rounds since early January, and the current death toll (at the time of reporting) stands at 75, with over 200 patients (from all over Punjab) admitted in Lahore’s Mayo, Jinnah, Services, General and Ganga Ram hospitals. Medicines issued by the Pakistan Institute of Cardiology (PIC) remain the common link among these patients.
While it remains to be proved, common consensus is that the December 2011 batch of the medicine was the main cause of these mysterious deaths. It is feared that of the 46,000 patients to have been issued the medicine (from the latest batch), a large number could have fallen sick and died at home, with the number of hospital cases also feared to rise.
The Services Hospital has, in fact, seen an increase in the number of bereaved relatives, who have been filing in papers for their deceased family members. Coming to terms with the tragedy at hand, carrying certificates of death, they stand around confused and muddled. No one, they say, comes to their help.
Puzzling symptoms “My father was admitted on January 1, after he started throwing up blood,” says Saquib. When his father was admitted, Saquib believes there must have been at least 50 other patients with the same symptoms at the Services Hospital.
“My mother began bleeding from the nose and mouth,” adds Shazia.
“Her face was dark like coal, she couldn’t eat or drink anything, she kept complaining of a dry throat, and her mouth smelled like a decaying corpse…as if something inside her was dying.”
Shazia is back at Services Hospital now, seeking a death certificate for her mother. The registration of her mother’s death may also allow her to receive the compensation money announced by Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. The hospitals, however, seem to be avoiding registering any more deaths over the next few days, especially those caused by this mysterious illness. Officials at the hospital, she alleges, are misleading her.
Several grieving relatives have not received death certificates, while others complain that their loved ones were forcibly discharged while they were still seriously ill.
“My father was very sick and weak, with blood in his urine and a constant nose-bleed,” says a young man, requesting anonymity. “But they administered a drip which stopped the vomiting for some time and told us to go home and carry on with the medication. No one bothered to check what was actually wrong. Some days later, my father died.”
Nothing, really, was meant to be wrong with medicines being used by the heart patients since they had been using the same pills for, in some cases, decades. Nothing had happened then, and they fail to understand what is happening now.
Saquib’s father had been admitted by early January, with the symptoms. By mid-January, the death toll had climbed up to 27. Only after January 20, 2012, did the constant media coverage wake up a slumbering Punjab Government and bring it on the forefront, unprepared. At first, tests conducted at a government-run lab showed no irregularities in medicines. However, with increased media coverage, a further test proved the presence of a toxic chemical.
Fatal formula According to sources, a blood-thinning drug called ‘clopidogrell’ was initially believed to be the cause of the mysterious illness. However, reports showed that four to five of the affected patients were not using this drug. Later, it was strongly suspected that “cardiovastan” (brand name, drug formula: Simvastatin), which is a cholesterol-lowering drug was the reason.
The drug, which was being distributed to the patients, is being locally manufactured by Mega Pharmaceuticals.
Drugs, sources say, are tendered by private companies but only after being tested by labs for pre-qualification and are then re-tested before they are paid for – a procedure followed by the manufacturing company.
“Usually drugs are only assembled in Pakistan, with the raw materials being imported from abroad,” says the source. “The raw material used for this batch was perhaps not imported and was instead produced locally, making it sub-standard. Or, the arsenic used in the paint on top of the pill was in excess and resulted in poisoning. We are not sure what the cause is.”
Catching the culprits Among the owners of the factory, who have been sent arrest warrants, one name that is repeatedly emerging is that of a PML-N parliamentarian, who is allegedly the ‘real’ owner of Mega Pharmaceuticals, while the ‘paper-owner’ is someone else, who is also involved in the chemicals business. While the matter remains puzzling, if the allegations are proven to be true, it may turn out to be a case of the Punjab Government trying to cover up the involvement of their MNA. In a more serious development, it has been discovered that another medicine, manufactured by the same pharmaceutical company, is being sold in the same packaging by the name of Megasar (formula: Losartan potassium, with international name Cozaar), which is prescribed for hypertension.