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The killer medicines

January 01, 2013

THE year 2012 will largely be remembered in Punjab for long due to 169 deaths in two tragic incidents involving spurious drugs in Lahore and the ‘incompetence’ of the government which is yet to pin the responsibility and punish the guilty.

The first incident surfaced in January, three months after the dengue outbreak in 2011, when the ‘defective’ drug disbursed by Punjab Institute of Cardiology (PIC) took lives of nearly 150 poor patients. The other episode took place in November after 19 deaths were reported at some hospitals of the provincial capital where patients had been brought after hey had taken a spurious cough syrup.

Drug reactions usually takes place individually, involving one or two deaths in health facilities before an alert is sounded and mass-scales tragedies are averted. But over 150 deaths by the ‘adulterated free medicines’ that was disbursed at the state-run specialised institute among poor cardiac patients, was an incident of different nature which jolted the healthcare system and also raised serious doubts on the drug delivery mechanism to government institutions in Punjab.

Even after deaths had been reported by the media, the government didn’t wake up to the grim reality. As a result, the numbers continued to mount, with the provincial government only taking it seriously when the toll had crossed the 100 mark.

Following the criminal mishap, a number of countries also acted promptly and put a check on the medicines manufactured and exported by Pakistan, and banned several products for a period of time. The drugs killed and brought bad name to the country and added to its economic woes, but those responsible have not faced any action yet.

The most troubling factor of the PIC tragedy was the ‘lack of competence’ on the part of the Punjab government which in the aftermath of the incident used traditional tactics in the probes to take the culprits to the court of law and streamline the system to avoid such happenings in the future.

Shortly after the scam, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif went about the business in his usual style, preferring to be seen as doing something rather than actually doing it. He sidelined the then health secretary and PIC chief besides suspending over a dozen other senior government officials. His steps sparked agitation among the young doctors and other members of the medical community. On his direction, police carried out massive and non-stop raids and arrested several owners of pharmaceutical companies and sealed several factories which sent a wave of shock through the entire industry.

The acts were earned public condemnation as they were blatantly political in approach without ensuring justice and bringing some relief to the families of 150 patients who had lost their lives.

The government had four inquiries conducted by police, and one each by the Judiciary and the Chief Minister’s Inspection Team (CMIT) but nothing has ever been made public.

As the government had not learnt any lesson from the tragic episode, another drug scam hit the province towards the latter part of the year when 19 deaths were reported due to a spurious cough syrup. The incident took place in Shahdara and adjoining localities. The initial probe said they were drug addicts.

The government’s reaction to the matter was not different to what it had done earlier in the year. FIRs, raids, inquiries, words and words with no matching action.