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Fatal medicine

November 28, 2012

DEATH by drinking is not unheard of in Pakistan. The number of deaths caused by consuming substandard liquor runs into many scores each year. The incidence of such fatalities invariably picks up during holidays when imbibers revel as a group. But the 17 who died after having apparently drunk a cough-syrup based concoction in Lahore over the Ashura holidays did not consume the poison in a group. They had their fill individually. An initial official inquiry indicated they may have spiked the cough syrup, sold under the brand name of Tyno, for an enhanced kick. While the bottles they bought carried the same brand name some of them bore a price tag of Rs19 as opposed to the standard Rs42. But these clues raise more questions than offer explanations. One, a brand must have a certain reputation to attract the attention of fake manufacturers. Two, if users had bought the syrup individually, it is odd that each one on that particular day mixed it with a substance which turned it into a cocktail of death. The investigators should focus on whether the unfortunate users had bought some other drug from the same or another nearby shop to get the desired mix. The concentration of the deceased in one area of Lahore — Shahdara — should make it easier for police to narrow down the problem and unearth the racket. The outcome is almost expected: the probe is going to expose the nexus between desperate addicts and their heartless, greedy suppliers.

What has already been exposed though is the official failure of not learning from deaths caused by substandard drugs in the past. Almost a year ago, Lahore lost 150 precious lives due to the administration of a contaminated drug at the Punjab Institute of Cardiology. Investigations into the case still continue while monitoring remains so lax that it allows the sale of all kinds of substances. On Tuesday, the district coordination officer arrived in grief-stricken Shahdara to discover a factory making spurious medicines — a few days late.

According to a health official, Punjab is yet to fully understand its requirements and responsibilities under the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan law signed by the president recently. The law, among other objectives, seeks to regulate the working of the pharmaceutical industry and aims to prevent the manufacture of fake drugs. This delay in understanding the new system is criminal and while the fog must be cleared as early as possible, the blame for the havoc caused by substandard drugs, as well as the misuse of known brands does, by and large, lie with the province.