Pakistani authorities are investigating allegations that cough syrup has killed at least three dozen people, a government official has announced, making this the second time in recent months that medicine is suspected of causing multiple deaths.
The deaths from the cough syrup occurred in the eastern city of Gujranwala and nearby villages, said local official Abdul Jabbar Shaheen. Another 54 people thought to have consumed the syrup are also being treated at city hospitals. Officials believe the victims drank the syrup to get high, he said.
According to BBC, tests show the victims’ stomachs contained dextromethorphan, a synthetic morphine derivative used in cough syrup that can have mind-altering effects if consumed in large quantities, said Shaheen. Investigators are trying to determine if the victims drank too much syrup, or whether there was a problem with the medicine itself, he said.
In recent years, more people in Pakistan have become hooked on sedatives and non-conventional drugs like cough syrups, pain killers and anti-allergens.
Syed Zulfiqar Hussain runs the NGO Against Narcotics in Lahore, and says the true number of such addicts is in the millions, “because there is no restriction, one can go and buy anything, it’s so simple. On the other hand regular drugs are expensive and difficult to get.”
The medical superintendent of the District Headquarters Hospital in Gujranwala has said that doctors “do not prescribe such cough syrups; nor do patients use them on their own for cough suppression”.
“Only branded cough syrups of well-reputed multinational companies are given to patients.”
Whether it is the easy availability of synthetic drugs, their open sale in any quantity, or a fault with the raw material or production process, the accusation is that the relevant government departments are not doing their job.
Punjab’s health director Dr Cheema is shifting responsibility onto the Drug Regulatory Authority, created only a few months ago at the federal level.
He says its primary responsibility is to check imports of raw materials and the production of medicines, but that the Punjab government will also take action to prevent any such incident in the future.
“We will not limit ourselves to just these two companies; we will take stern action against all local non-branded companies that are playing with human lives,” he said.
Psychologist Dr Riaz Bhatti says the deaths in Lahore and Gujranwala “have once again proven the fact that there is no health system in the country; things are moving on their own”.
“There are so many crises, law and order situation is bad, life is cheap; people are so frustrated that they are looking for escape, and synthetic drugs provide them with one. But they mix different drugs, it makes them lethal.”
Twenty-three people died in the nearby city of Lahore in November after drinking bad cough syrup sold under the brand name Tyno. They were also described at the time as people who consumed the drug to get high.
Shaheen said the cough syrup involved in the incidents in and around Gujranwala was not sold under a single brand. He said some people in the city make cough syrup to sell specifically to drug addicts, and officials are trying to arrest them.
Officials temporarily closed one Lahore-based pharmaceutical company whose cough syrup was found in the possession of some affected in Gujranwala. They are investigating whether it caused any of the deaths, said Shaheen.