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Cough Syrup Linked to 66 Gambian Deaths May Be in Other Countries, WHO Warns

The logo for the World Health Organization (WHO) WHO Info application is displayed on a computer screen in an arranged photograph taken in Bern, Switzerland, on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a seismic wave of health awareness and anxiety, which is energizing a new category of virus-fighting tech and apps. Photographer: Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg (Bloomberg)

The World Health Organization has warned that a deadly batch of cough mixture connected to the deaths of dozens of children in Gambia may have been distributed to other countries.

The agency on Wednesday placed a medical product alert on cough and cold syrups made by India’s Maiden Pharmaceuticals Ltd., which have been potentially linked to acute kidney injuries and 66 deaths among children in the tiny West African nation, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a media briefing. 

Four contaminated Maiden products were found in a laboratory analysis to contain “unacceptable amounts” of diethylene glycol and ethylene glycol, the WHO said. Tedros added that the global health body is conducting further investigations with the company and Indian regulators, while recommending countries remove the treatments from circulation.

Calls to the drugmaker’s corporate office in New Delhi weren’t answered and the company didn’t immediately respond to emails seeking comment. 

Maiden Pharma manufactured and exported these products only to Gambia, according to a statement from India’s health ministry late Thursday, adding that none of these four drugs were sold in India. 

“It is a usual practice that the importing country tests these imported products on quality parameters, and satisfies itself” before deciding to release them for usage in the country, the ministry said in the statement. India is also awaiting WHO’s analysis showing “exact one to one causal relation” of deaths in Gambia to these treatments, it said.

The deaths shine a spotlight on India’s $42 billion drugmaking industry, which has been heavily promoted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the “pharmacy of the world.”

India supplies many of the cheap, generic drugs sold in American pharmacies and hundreds of countries globally. But treatments produced in the South Asian nation have been the source of multiple manufacturing scandals in recent years, including the export of tainted heart pills.

Closely-held Maiden Pharma has been making and supplying medical products for more than 30 years and has a presence across multiple countries in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Russia, according to its website. 

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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