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26 Oct, 2023 10:31

Gambia begins trial over Indian cough syrup deaths – AFP

Families of 70 children who died after taking the medicine are seeking about $230,000 in compensation per child
Gambia begins trial over Indian cough syrup deaths – AFP

A high court in Gambia has opened legal proceedings over the deaths of dozens of children last year, after they consumed cough syrup manufactured by the Indian pharmaceutical company Maiden Pharmaceuticals.

The lawsuit was filed in July by 19 plaintiffs representing the victims, aged five and younger, in the West African country, Salieu Taal, president of the Gambia Bar Association, told the French news agency AFP.

At least 70 Gambian children who had taken the over-the-counter medication died of kidney failure in 2022, according to health officials, causing outrage in the country of 2.5 million.

In October last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) linked the deaths to the Maiden Pharmaceuticals syrup, explaining that the drug contained “unacceptable” levels of the toxins ethylene glycol and diethylene glycol, which are used in car brake fluid.

The families are suing Maiden Pharmaceuticals, along with Atlantic Pharmaceuticals – which imported the drugs to Gambia – as well as the African country’s Medical Controls Agency (MCA), Ministry of Health, and Attorney General Dawda Jallow, demanding that they acknowledge that the contaminated medicines killed the children.

The plaintiffs also want the MCA to admit that it failed to fulfil its legal obligation to test the safety of the medication. They are seeking 15 million dalasis (approximately $230,000) in compensation for each child.

According to AFP, none of the five defendants were present at the hearing in the capital, Banjul, on Tuesday. The high court judge, Justice Ebrima Jaiteh, dismissed a request from the Health Ministry, MCA, and attorney general to postpone the start of the trial, which had previously been delayed in July.

Justice Jaiteh adjourned the trial until November 7, stating that the three state defendants who failed to appear demonstrated a lack of diligence.

The Gambia ordered a recall of multiple cough and cold medications in September last year, along with all products of Maiden Pharmaceuticals, the source of the suspected contaminated syrups, in response to reports of fatalities.

A government investigation taskforce released its findings in July, claiming that four cough syrups imported from India were to blame for the deaths. Gambian Health Minister Ahmadou Lamin Samateh said at the time that there were flaws in regulatory and import checks of the medication, beginning with the products not being registered with the MCA.

The Indian government launched an investigation into the four cough medications last year and suspended Maiden Pharmaceuticals' license. Following the Gambian incident and deaths in Uzbekistan, two other Indian manufacturers, Marion Biotech and QP Pharmachem, had their licenses suspended and their exports halted.

The companies have denied the allegations against them.

In August, India ordered pharmaceutical company Riemann Labs to cease operations following claims that the cough syrup it manufactures led to the deaths of at least six children in the West African nation of Cameroon in March.