Tainted Medicine Scares in China

Amid fallout over contaminated milk powder, two new scares over possibly tainted medical supplies in China have come to light.

2008-10-13
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wandashan-305.jpg Photo of tainted Siberian ginseng, taken from Web site of Wandashan Pharmaceutical, the distributors.
Photo: Wandashan Pharmaceutical
HONG KONG—Health authorities in China say two batches of an injection fluid containing Siberian ginseng are "substandard" following laboratory tests, after three people died in the southwest of the country.

Authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan have recalled two batches of ginseng injection vials following the deaths, which came after patients received the medication by injection.

Sun Yuemin, director of the No. 2 Hospital under the Kunming Medical School, was quoted in official media as saying it was clear from the appearance of the packaging that the color of the liquid varied from bottle to bottle, and the contents appeared turbid.

Six patients at the No. 4 People's Hospital in Honghe Autonomous Prefecture suffered strong adverse reactions, including vomiting and becoming comatose, after being injected with ciwujia Siberian ginseng extract from the two batches, Sun said.

Calls to Sun's office during working hours went unanswered on Friday.

Further tests are still being carried out on the ginseng fluid after three people died in hospital last week.

Recall ordered

Manufactured in December by Wandashan Pharmaceutical, in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, the two batches were ordered recalled after the deaths of three people who had received the injections.

A Wandashan employee surnamed Zhang said the company was still waiting for the full lab tests.

"The main thing is that the results of the investigation haven't yet been published," the employee, surnamed Zhou, said. "They didn't get enough samples for testing from the two recalled batches, so we're still waiting."

Health Ministry experts have run tests on hundreds of samples of "Cuwujia Injection" herbal remedies, extracted from a variety of Siberian ginseng, which is often used to treat thrombosis caused by weak liver and kidneys.

It is also believed to be helpful in treating coronary heart disease, nervous exhaustion, and menopausal problems in traditional Chinese medicine.

They have so far found no toxins, such as rat poison, pesticide, or herbicide. Further investigations are now under way into the cause of the three deaths.

But they did say the two batches were "substandard," official media reported.

No previous problems

A spokesperson for the Public Security Bureau, or police, in the Honghe Autonomous Prefecture—home to China's Hani and Yi ethnic minorities—said there was no indication of intentional poisoning of the injection fluid.

Guo Laibin, a Heilongjiang Land Reclamation Region official in charge of economic development, said the recall had begun Tuesday morning and applied to all unused products still held by clinics and hospitals.

All of the medicine had now been accounted for and was on its way back to the manufacturer, Guo said, without specifying the number of doses.

Hospital officials in Honghe said they had experienced no previous problems with the ciwujia injections.

Hospital president Liu Ru said doctors had been using them for a long time, with problems emerging only with doses from two specific batches Sunday.

A total of 19 people used injections from the problem batches, six of whom had suffered adverse reactions.

Fructose jabs banned

Local food and drug administration official Xue Yun said a total of 13 hospitals in the prefecture had used the two batches of injections and only the No. 4 People's Hospital had reported adverse reactions.

A total of 180 bottles from the No. 4 People's Hospital had now been sent to the authorities for examination, Xue said.

Meanwhile, officials at the Mingcheng Huali Hospital in Foshan, in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, said they had detected problems with fructose injection fluids manufactured by the Guangdong Litai Pharmaceutical Co. back in April.

The hospital director had ordered staff to stop using the vials immediately, deputy director Liu said.

"We have stopped using all the affected medical supplies," Liu said. "We discovered small dead bugs in the liquid, and one bottle was clouded with mold."

"We were afraid of an incident that would result in the patients suing us, so we stopped using the product entirely," he said, saying that the hospital had reported the problems to the municipal health inspectorate.

Company denial

A manager surnamed Li at Guangdong Litai denied problems with any of the company's products, saying there was no evidence for the hospital's claims, and suggesting that it was trying to extort money from the company.

"The hospital hasn't been able to produce a single example of tainted medicine produced by our company," Li said.

"We have made several requests for a meeting with hospital representatives but have been ignored," he added. "They have sent back the goods in large quantities with no clear reason given. But who do we complain to about the damage to our reputation?"

"We don't think they are sincere, but that they want to extort money from us," Li said.

These medical safety scares come amid a nationwide scandal over contaminated milk products, which has given tens of thousands of Chinese infants kidney stones.

"This is really a case of moral collapse," said Li Hongkuan, editor of the U.S.-based online Chinese magazine Da Cankao. "Most people who do business in China don't even have the slightest moral conscience."

Government response

"In a case like the addition of industrial chemicals to baby milk formula...this wouldn't happen in a normal society. If a scientist, like a chemist, did something like that, they'd be finished for life," he said.

"The government hasn't done its job in managing this problem."

In Heilongjiang at least, the ginseng scare has prompted a response from food safety officials right up to the municipal and provincial levels.

They arrived at the Heilongjiang-based Wandashan Pharmaceutical plant to investigate the medicine on Tuesday, and the company is said to be cooperating fully with the investigation. No results have yet been released. The product has been manufactured at the plant for 30 years, and no previous problems have been reported.

Meanwhile, all sales and prescription of the medicine have been banned in Yunnan and Heilongjiang, and hospitals have been ordered to monitor patients closely for further adverse reactions, Heilongjiang health bureau chief Li Bin said.

The adverse reactions appear so far to be limited to Yunnan province.

China's pharmaceutical industry is highly lucrative but poorly regulated, resulting in a string of fatalities blamed on counterfeit or shoddily made medications in recent years.

Last year, the country's former top drug regulator was executed for taking millions of dollars in bribes to approve substandard medicines, including an antibiotic that killed at least 10 people.

Original reporting in Cantonese by Fung Yat-yiu and in Mandarin by Lin Ping. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.
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