As the death toll of those who took free medicine from the Punjab Institute of Cardiology (PIC) crosses 100, the story – perhaps inevitably – has moved into the realm of the corrupt and sinister.
It has emerged that the licence of one of the three pharmaceutics laboratories that supplied the apparently contaminated drugs to the PIC expired in April 2011. The company continued to manufacture the medicines in bulk and even supplied them in the open market in addition to governmental hospitals.
The licence of Alfalah Pharma (Pvt) Limited expired seven months ago – but provincial drug inspectors were totally ignorant of this fact, according to sources. The factory has now been sealed by authorities.
The facts were uncovered by federal drugs inspectors as well as officials from the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), and raise uneasy questions about the workings of regulatory authorities.
Meanwhile, the PIC is yet to provide relevant records to the joint investigation team, despite several reminders.
The FIA continues to probe the matter. On Wednesday it sent a sample of the tablet Solprin, manufactured by Pharmawise Laboratories (Pvt) Ltd, to the Central Drug Laboratory in Karachi for analysis. The FIA also sent letters to the provincial secretary of health as well as other officials to find out the exact death toll.
The investigating team has also examined records relating to stock, supply and manufacturing of the companies who made the drugs.
The situation is only worsening, however, as the Punjab government on Wednesday withdrew a batch of 200,000 aspirin tablets from the PIC after they were found to be contaminated.
Parliamentary Secretary for Health Dr Saeed Elahi, confirmed the story to The Express Tribune and called for an immediate withdrawal of the drug from the hospital’s dispensary.
The batch was dispatched to PIC’s dispensary from December 16 to January 12. Elahi also said that the government had ordered an investigation to find out why the medicine was contaminated.
After the PIC’s free heart medicine fiasco, another spate of panic might start, as there is a chance that tablets from this batch might have been sent to other pharmacies in the city.
The panic will take some time to subside, as it has emerged that 400-500 patients were given the same medicine at the hospital.
The medicine triggered an unknown disease that is said to get deposited in the bone marrow and ultimately ends the body’s resistance. The generation of white blood cells stops in the body and a severe chest infection also takes place.
The Punjab government has tried to calm anger, and distributed compensation cheques on Wednesday to the relatives of those who died after taking the PIC drugs.
This was not enough for the leader of the opposition in the province, Raja Riaz, who said that Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, who is ultimately in charge of the health ministry, is responsible for the casualties.
Riaz said that it was the function of health minister to overlook the performance of his department, but unfortunately the obstinate CM has not learnt the lesson after about 800 people died of dengue last year.
He said that Sharif has been too ashamed to come to the Punjab Assembly and urged him to explain him actions in person.
Riaz had earlier told the media that the PPP is considering asking relatives of those who have died to lodge an FIR against Sharif and the negligence of his departments. He also demanded that the chief justice of Pakistan take suo moto notice on the PIC incident.
(With additional input from Mohammad Rizwan & Abdul Manan)
Published in The Express Tribune, January 26th, 2012.