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Officials involved in cough syrup saga must be punished

By | March 14th 2009

Hospitals are either carting away children’s cough syrups from their stores or cancelling orders. As expected, importers and stockists of syrups will incur massive financial losses. Their precarious situation will be compounded by increasingly hostile global economic environment.

Business shutdowns and job-cuts are also expected.

The Ministry of Health learnt of the syrups’ ineffectiveness and dangers they pose to children two years ago but neither advised the public nor ordered the Pharmacy and Poisons Board, which regulates drug usage, to swing into action.

Kenyatta National Hospital – East Africa’s largest teaching and referral hospital – stopped prescribing the drugs 12 years ago. All that time the board and the ministry have been resting on their laurels. Given that it is a matter of life and death, for researchers now say some of the mixtures can kill children less than six years old, one could be tempted to demand that those who slept on their jobs be charged with criminal neglect.

The board, according to the mandate set out by Chapter 244 of the Laws of Kenya, is the Drug Regulatory Authority established under the Pharmacy and Poisons Act. The mandate is clear: "The Board regulates the Practice of Pharmacy and the Manufacture and Trade in drugs and poisons."

The board’s mission captures the expectation of the nation: "To regulate and control pharmaceutical services and ensure accessibility, safety, efficacy and quality of human and veterinary medicines and medical devices."

The way the Ministry of Health and the board have handled this matter is scandalous and criminal. The trend all over the world has been the withdrawal of these drugs. In a country where healthcare is a luxury to the poor, one can just imagine the financial burden we have placed on parents. We have let them spend the little they have to buy useless drugs.

One could also ask what happened to peer review and sharing of research findings among medical professionals that it took private medical institutions two years to act, and only after the red flag was raised in the international arena.


What went wrong with our own internal enforcement of standards and regulatory function? Consider this question asked by the Health PS: "We removed cough syrups from medical supplies chain a long time ago and I was asking myself why they were still being used?" You would have expected he would have answered the question and cracked the whip.

This is symptomatic of the lethargy that seems to have a firm grip on our public service, leading to flouting rules and chain of ‘made-made’ disasters. We court disaster then point the finger of culpability in the opposite direction. At other times we blame it on fate and supernatural. This vicious cycle will continue to cause us pain because we never punish those who bring us death. We stumble, pick ourselves up, dust the coats and move on.

The criminal nature of this negligence is discernible from this: although many of the products have been used for years, safety and effectiveness trials have not been carried out. We just plunged into global drug network headlong – no questions asked or follow-up.

Even when they knew there was a problem, they kept it to themselves. As a lesson to others the whip must start cracking on the board and ministry officials.

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