Deadly medicine creates poisoning crisis in Panama
Cough syrup, tablets and ointment are still killing as the toll passes 30.
By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published October 29, 2006
PANAMA CITY, Panama - First comes nausea and diarrhea. Then the facial muscles relax, followed by kidney failure, paralysis and often death.
It's a medical crisis in Panama, where contaminated cough syrup, antihistamine tablets, calamine lotion and rash ointment have killed 34 people since July. More than 40 others have been hospitalized, at least half in critical condition.
The government has recalled 24 types of medication produced by Panama's national health system, suspended production at all government pharmaceutical factories, and even gone door to door to issue warnings and collect contaminated products.
But people keep dying.
"We are facing a crisis," said David Abrego, director of a government clinic evaluating hundreds of people who fear being poisoned. "The people are apprehensive. There's a lot of tension and nervousness."
The contaminated medicines contained a chemical cousin of antifreeze, diethylene glycol, which is used to keep glue and cosmetics moist. Officials believe it turned up in 100,000 bottles of cough syrup, 20,000 of which have not been recovered.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta first traced the outbreak to the cough syrup on Oct. 12, and Panamanian authorities soon realized it involved other medicines as well. On Oct. 18, Panama set up 34 round-the-clock clinics across the nation to identify the sick and perform blood tests for kidney damage.
The Health Ministry announced Friday that nearly 50,000 people have had blood tests.
Abrego said officials are particularly worried about rural areas, where information about the contaminated products is scarce. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has four investigators still in Panama, searching remote areas for new cases.
The national health system provides free health care for all Panamanians, 40 percent of whom live in poverty.
The most damaging contamination has been in cough syrup, which is among the country's most popular remedies.
"It's what we take for any kind of problem in Panama - the flu, a change in climate that makes you feel bad," said Armando Johnson, a 41-year-old hospital orderly. He, his wife and two daughters all took the cough syrup for head colds and were worried until blood tests found they were fine.
It's unclear how the cousin to antifreeze got into the medications. Panamanian authorities have blamed it on an expired batch of glycerin manufactured in Spain. But outside experts are skeptical of that theory because glycerin, which occurs naturally in the human body and is added to many products, is highly stable.
Authorities say the Panamanian supplier changed the expiration date from 2004 to 2007 and sold it to the national health service through a Panama City shell company.
Deputy Attorney General Luis Martinez says a chemical reaction caused by the old glycerin converted that ingredient into diethylene glycol. Experts say that's scientifically improbable.
Panama detained three people last week, including a lawyer who is a founder of the shell company. Arrest warrants have been issued for three others.
[Last modified October 29, 2006, 01:20:09]
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