Hundreds of children died from renal failure between 1982 and 1992, but the reason for the disease had been unknown until a brave physician revealed that toxic paracetamol was causing the deaths.
Instead of using propylene glycol, five pharmaceutical companies used lethal but cheap diethylene glycol in producing paracetamol syrup, kidney specialist Prof Mohammad Hanif had said in 1992.
The pediatrician, who since 1982 had seen children die, arranged a test of Adflame's Flammodol at a US laboratory. The sample tested positive for diethylene glycol, leading to prosecution of four out of the five companies. The other firm, City Chemical, was never prosecuted allegedly for its warm relations with the then BNP government.
Over the course of two decades, Rex Pharma secured an acquittal in 2003. Cases against Polychem and BCI Bangladesh have been stayed since 1994.
The trial in the Adflame case resumed in November, 2009 after The Daily Star had ran an investigative report.
“This [the lengthy trial] will encourage people to keep committing crimes,” said Hanif, head of nephrology department at Dhaka Shishu Hospital, in an interview with this newspaper on Saturday.
His apprehension is justified by the fact that Rid Pharma had produced paracetamol syrup with the same toxin in 2009. At least 28 children died at that time until the physician blew the whistle once again.
Also the president of Bangladesh Pediatric Association, Hanif said many family members of the victims in 1980s might have died by now, and the verdict is too late to be considered as a consolation for them.
It is very likely that a significant amount of evidence have been lost by now, making it even more difficult for proving the heinous crime, he mentioned.
He blamed inefficiencies and lack of commitment of the Directorate of Drug Administration (DDA) and other government agencies concerned for the delayed trial.
“The drug administration had filed the cases and it is duty-bound to work for quick disposal of those. Did it do that?” he questioned.
Trial record shows that owners of Rex Pahrma were acquitted due to deliberate destruction of evidence by the DDA. The prosecution even could not prove before the court that the syrup was properly tested in laboratories both at home and abroad.
Lack of seriousness of the government agencies concerned is also evident in the case against Adflame. Although more than 2,000 children had died between 1982 and 1992, the company was implicated for the death of 76, allegedly due to negligence of the government agencies in preserving record and evidence.
Hanif believes the Drug (control) Ordinance, 1982 is insufficient for trying the perpetrators. He recommended incorporating capital punishment in the law to prevent pharmaceutical companies from committing such crimes “intentionally”. “Those adulterating drugs only for the sake of profit must be ordered to walk the gallows.”
The existing law is lax as its provision stipulates the highest 10-year rigorous imprisonment and a fine of only Tk 2 lakh for drug adulteration.
It seems that the law has no provision to compensate the irreparable loss of the victims' families, Hanif pointed out.
He suggested that the ministries of health, law, commerce and home should coordinate with each other for retaining the growth of the country's promising drug industry.
The physician hardly cared about being praised for the role he has been playing against drug adulteration. His name was dropped twice from the list of nominees for Ekushey Padak, said sources.
“I'm satisfied that I've been able to save children from death,” he added.
In his reaction to yesterday's verdict, Hanif said he was happy to see the culprits punished finally.
Although the judgment came after 22 long years, it gave a message to the adulterators that they have to face music if they committed such crimes, he added.