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LAHORE: Seven children have died of diphtheria during the last few weeks at the Children’s Hospital due to unavailability of life-saving drug, it is learnt.

Many other children are at grave risk as the health authorities are allegedly trying to hush up the deaths instead of ensuring supply of vital medicine to save their lives.

“Reports of diphtheria cases are reaching the health secretariat from some other parts of the province,” a senior official told Dawn. He said that being an acute toxin-mediated disease, diphtheria had a terribly high mortality ratio. Despite knowing this fact, the health department had failed to ensure the provision of the drug -- diphtheria antitoxin (DAT) -- from Russia, the only country which has been producing and supplying the medicine to the international market, he said.

Children’s Hospital faces drug shortage

The official said the order was placed to purchase the drug in September. “It is a matter of grave concern that the same could not be supplied so far.”

Children’s Hospital Medical Director Dr Ehsan Waheed Rathore confirmed diphtheria-related deaths at his hospital, saying more children were arriving from all over the province as the “peak season” of this fatal disease had started. He said 11-year-old girl, Meera, died on Friday. She was put on ventilator for intensive care due to complications but could not survive.

He said diphtheria, which had almost been eliminated in most parts of the world, was thriving in few countries including Pakistan. He said the Children’s Hospital alone had received 26 children with severe complications since the winter season started in October.

“The health department provided on Friday 40 vials of the drug to avert any further tragedy,” Dr Rathore said, adding that all the 26 children besides the seven who succumbed to the disease had been confirmed patients of the diphtheria in the clinical investigations.

Punjab Health Director General Dr Amjad Shahzad said though the deaths took place in recent weeks, process to officially declare them diphtheria-related deaths was under way. He told Dawn that he held the officials of the Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI) responsible for the grave “misstatement” as they were assigned task to ensure provision of the drug which was yet to be made available.

He said the purchase order for the provision of the life-saving DTA was placed on Sept 22 in view of the season of the disease. He said unfortunately the medicine could not be procured due to certain reasons. For instance, he said, the finance department had refused to process the procurement for the diphtheria drug for this season when the EPI officials failed to produce the record of consumption of the same medicine which was procured last year.

“Last year, 2,000 vials were purchased but only 26 diphtheria cases were reported,” he said. He said the EPI officials were supposed to dispose of the unused drug due to short expiry.

As the process of constituting committee to dispose of the previous expired drug delayed, the finance department raised objection to the new one in the absence of the details of previous consumption.

“We had hardly managed 100 vials on an emergency basis from the World Health Organization when the diphtheria-related deaths emerged,” said Dr Amjad.

Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2015