NEW DELHI: The recent death of 66 children in The Gambia, linked to four cough syrups made and exported by Haryana-based Maiden Pharmaceuticals, is a distressing as well as shocking development. The issue has brought the spotlight on quality monitoring and due diligence by drug-makers in the country and the need for stricter deterrent policy by the Government. The matter, if not handled urgently, can damage the perception that Indian medicines are trustworthy for African countries and the global South.
According to news reports from two leading sources in The Gambia, the information regarding linkage of the deaths to the cough syrups came from a WHO announcement a few days back. The announcement links the deaths to acute kidney injury (AKI) and says that these were connected to the cough syrups imported from the above-mentioned Indian company.
Apparently, deaths among children were occurring over a few months. In August, these deaths were attributed to a ‘mystery disease’ and linked to paracetamol syrup by the Gambian Ministry of Health and the Medicines Control Agency (MCA). But now that the WHO has issued a medical product alert for the contaminated medicines, the link to the AKI and the 66 deaths seems more clearly established.
Gurjit Singh, former Ambassador to African Union, is of the view that the “two issues directly impinge on how this matter will be handled. First, the Indian company has clarified that it has not sold these products in India. Why did it export them to The Gambia? What is good for India must be applied to all countries with whom we trade”. Evidently, there have been slippages on the regulatory mechanism, both in India and The Gambia.
India is a major player in the pharmaceutical market in Africa, with 20 per cent of its exports of about $17 billion going to Africa. Pharmaceutical companies from India have invested in Ethiopia, Uganda, DR Congo, Zambia, South Africa, Ghana and other places, since markets are not unified and each product has to be separately registered in every country. The African Medicines Agency needs to establish regional testing and regulatory mechanisms in which India can also be of help.
With The Gambia, a small English-speaking country in West Africa, India had exports worth $155 million in 2021; pharmaceutical exports being worth $9.23 million or 6 per cent of this. Both the countries now need to work together through their regulatory agencies to determine how an Indian manufacturer could export what he did not sell in India and how The Gambia allowed it to enter. This is the least that can be done to prevent another tragedy.