Indian-origin cough syrups have been linked to the deaths of 66 children in the West African country Gambia. Manufactured and sold by Haryana-based Maiden Pharmaceuticals Limited, four cough syrups have been found responsible. They are:

  • Promethazine Oral Solution
  • Kofexmalin Baby Cough Syrup
  • Makoff Baby Cough Syrup
  • Magrip N Cold Syrup

Why are these types of syrup banned in India?

Analyzing the contents of the syrup, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a medical product alert and advised countries to remove these products. In its lab analysis, the WHO found the syrups to contain unacceptable amounts of Diethylene Glycol and Ethylene Glycol (DEG).

Haryana’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Union government’s drug regulator, the Central Drug Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO), found 12 violations at Maiden Pharmaceuticals’ manufacturing facility. An immediate notice to shut down operations was sent to the company. 

What does DEG do?

Even the smallest amount of Diethylene glycol or Ethylene glycol is toxic to the human body. It is a colorless, odorless alcohol substance that is used for antifreeze and other industrial applications. It is not suitable for consumption and is potentially deadly, unlike other alcohols that humans consume.

Effects of DEG

Consuming them would cause the following effects: 

  • Headache
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea 
  • Inability to urinate

Consuming Diethylene glycol or Ethylene glycol can also permanently damage the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system.

This is not the first time

The children’s deaths in Gambia are not isolated incidents. Data shows that in the past, cough syrups have been linked to mass poisonings of children in India as well as other countries.

At least 84 children died in Nigeria in 2009 after taking a medicine for teething pain that contained diethylene glycol. In India, five cases have happened so far. In Chennai 15 children were killed in 1972, in Mumbai 14 patients lost their lives in 1986, in Bihar 11 were killed in 1988, and one in Jammu in December 2019 killing 11 children. The largest ever was in Gurgaon in 1998 which killed 33 children. They took a contaminated cough expectorant and eight children also died the same year after taking paracetamol syrup. Both of the products contained DEG.

How to stop mass poisonings

Legal experts say the regulations in India are very relaxed and never properly enforced. Government lacks oversight and paves way for dangerous violations. India exports medicines to over 200 countries around the globe. The pharmaceutical industry in this country has a turnover of more than $50 billion. This gives rise to a large market producing generic drugs.

Stricter rules and stringent oversight from the government can help reduce such cough syrup bans in India and around the world.