• Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Identifying Toxic Drug-makers

Anguished father behind the story

Emran Hossain
"I even thought of catching the offenders and take matters into my own hands," said Noman, father of a victim

On a morning of 1992, Abdul Awal Noman elbowed his way through a crowd of visitors at Dhaka Shishu Hospital, cursing everyone and taking a dig at the government. 

The 33-year-old father just returned from his Manikganj home with some money for the treatment of his son Din Islam, who suffered a renal failure after taking paracetamol syrup.

But Din, only 13 months old, was no more, and the bed where he stayed for 11 days lay empty, Noman recalled, his body trembling as he struggled to hold back tears.    

Sitting in a crowd in a private city hospital around noon yesterday, he recounted the day when he lost his baby 22 years ago. His five-year-old grandson is now undergoing treatment for kidney ailment at the hospital.

Laying out a copy of The Daily Star on a tea table, he takes a look at the photographs of the three Adflame officials recently sentenced for tainting paracetamol syrup.

It took only three doses of the syrup to get Din on his deathbed. His urination stopped soon after he was given the drug, leading to a renal failure. Subsequent tests showed the manufacturers used 10 to 20 percent of diethylene glycol, a toxic substance used in industries, replacing the regular ingredient propylene glycol. Both the diluents taste sweet and are mixable with water.   

International laws, including in the US and Australia, do not allow more than 0.25% of diethylene glycol even in food additives.

Noman first learned about the country's first-ever judgment against drug contamination when he ran into Prof Dr Hanif on Wednesday afternoon.

Hanif, who blew the whistle against the adulteration after testing the syrup on personal initiatives at a US laboratory, was visiting the hospital on a special call. Before conveying the news of the judgment, Hanif assured Noman of his grandson's quick recovery.

“What a coincidence!” Hanif told The Daily Star, as he spoke about the man behind the story.

It was Noman who bought Prof Hanif one of the paracetamol syrups for testing.

When Din got a fever, his mother and an aunt bought the paracetamol syrup, prescribed by a government doctor, from a local pharmacy. On the day, Noman was away from home; he had to come to the capital for completing his last minute's preparation for going abroad for work. 

His son had been suffering from fever for two days, and fell sick the same night the elixir was bought.

When the infant was taking treatment for 11 days at the Shishu hospital, Noman, acting on Hanif's request, travelled from Dhaka to Manikganj to find an intact sample of the syrup given to his son.

"The day my wife bought the syrup, two more people had bought the same brand from the same medicine store. And we met at Singair hospital the same night and came to Shishu Hospital the next morning,” said Noman.

Two kids of these two men also had fever, suffered renal failures after taking the syrup and later died. 

These three cases raised suspicion in Hanif that the drugs might be tainted, causing renal failures of the children. Deaths from renal failure took an alarming rise from 1982, since when Prof Hanif, a child kidney specialist, had been watching children die for reasons unknown.

“I saw a ray of hope after the idea of testing the syrup occurred to the physician. I even thought of catching the offenders and take matters into my own hands,” said Noman.

But hope proved elusive as the cases filed against four companies for drug adulteration in 1992 remained stayed for more than a decade. One of the cases is pending in the High Court, while accused in another case got acquitted in 2003.

Trial against another company resumed in 2011 after a High Court stay order was lifted after 18 years.

“More than 2,700 children died after taking contaminated medicine, as reported in the media. But we cannot know the exact number, as many victims came from middle or lower class of the society, and could not even afford treatment. Many never knew that contaminated syrups killed their loving child, let alone having post mortem reports to prove it," said Noman. 

Soon joined by her daughter Sonia, who was also in her tears, Noman was struggling to find his words to say how much he owes to journalists for bringing the influential businessmen to book.

Following a report in The Daily Star in 2009, the HC ordered the trial court to revive the Adflame case.  

Still, the news of the verdict hardly consoled the aching heart of the mother, Nilu. On many occasions in the past 22 years, she broke down in tears when she saw young boys in the streets or in family gatherings, thinking how her son would look like if he were alive.

“One afternoon, she came all soak in sweat, gasping for breath. She had seen some boys riding past her on bicycles.

“I bought my daughter a bicycle right away, thinking it would give her some solace," said Noman.

Sonia tried but failed to keep the news of the judgment from her parents. She knew the news would conjure up the painful memory that they struggled so hard to suppress all these years.

“My mother came to know about it this morning [Thursday]. She is repeatedly losing her consciousness. Whenever she comes back to her senses, she calls me or my father to go near her and talk to her," said Sonia.

Mukuli Begum lost her 6-year-old son Shamim and 1-year-old daughter Jesmine in the span of a month in 1992. Both the kids were given paracetamol syrup for fever.

Like most of the victims' families The Daily Star spoke to, Mukuli was not optimistic about getting justice, given the trials against three companies remain pending.

“The adulterators should be hanged for killing children by poisoning medicine," she said.

 

Published: 12:01 am Saturday, July 26, 2014

Last modified: 10:01 pm Saturday, July 26, 2014

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