HONG KONG—Personnel from a medical research lab in China's southwestern Sichuan province have been detained, authorities said, following clashes between police and angry parents demanding to know if their children had been infected by re-used needles during blood tests.
Parents in nine villages near Jiusi township in Sichuan's Yibin municipality said they were approached earlier this month by employees of the Yizhi Zhili Research and Development Institute in the provincial capital Chengdu, calling on them to bring their children for free lead-poisoning blood tests.
Instead, they were charged 20 yuan (U.S. $2.90) per test, and needles were re-used on dozens of children, prompting fears that some could have become infected with HIV from known carriers in the group.
"They used the same syringe on several dozen kids," one parent from a village near Jiusi said.
"First [the government] said only children between ages 10 to 14 need to get tested. Then it turned out that even babies of less than a year old would have to have blood tests too and they repeatedly used the same syringe on scores of kids," he added.
"In the beginning they told us that it’s free to draw blood for the checkup. Later we found out that they charged 20 yuan on each blood drawing. They were just lying."
Hundreds of angry parents faced off against police in Yibin outside the Laifeng county government building on July 16 after attempts to get local news media to cover the story failed.
"Nearly 1,000 people from at least three townships came to the local county government last night. Police were at the scene to maintain order and threatened the villagers," another parent said.
One witness, who did not provide his name, said villagers also came looking for local journalists with complaints about the lack of media coverage.
"Villagers also fought with journalists because their complaints were not aired by local television. Villagers blamed journalists with helping the government to keep it a secret," the witness said.
A parent surnamed Xiang said he went to the gates of the government offices to demand help from authorities with other parents of sick children, but received no response despite an entire day of protests.
"In the evening they sent several hundred police to use violence against us. They detained parents and held the children down on the ground mercilessly with their feet to force the parents to leave," Xiang said.
"[The parents] became very angry and smashed the gates of the government building. Some of the injured kids are still in the hospital," he added.
Authorities have imposed a news blackout on coverage of the incident, and villagers' posts online about the incident have been removed. Parents say they are now afraid after being threatened by police who told them to stop their petitions or face arrest.
An official surnamed Zhang, who answered the phone at the Jiusi township government office, said that the area was calm following the clashes and that the police were now treating the case as suspected fraud. She denied that police had used violence on parents and children.
"This is very unlikely," Zhang said. "The parents were blocking the road at the time and getting over-excited. A lot of people were injured, including the mayor and a few of the people from the research lab. They also surrounded police vehicles."
"The police were simply protecting social stability and the safety of ordinary people. The entire incident was caused by the parents who got too excitable," she said.
An official who answered the phone at the Yibin municipal government office said authorities had determined that the laboratory had initially told parents the test would be free, and then charged them 20 yuan for it.
A staffer at the Yibin city police station said authorities had detained five supervisors and employees of the Yizhi Zhili Development Research Institute for investigation. She said a preliminary investigation indicates that the lab used the lead-poisoning blood test as a ruse to get 20 yuan for each child examined."
"They have already been detained, and we will deal with it according to law. If the evidence is there, they will be prosecuted," the staffer said.
Repeated calls to the Yizhi Zhili Development Research Institute in Chengdu went unanswered during office hours last week.
Medical fraud common
China has been deluged with cases of medical fakery and shoddy health care products in recent years. Parents who try to win redress from the authorities are themselves often placed under surveillance, and local media are banned from covering their grievances.
Thousands of parents protesting against the effects of melamine-contaminated infant milk formula have been banned from filing compensation lawsuits, and lawyers have been warned not to represent them.
China executed its former top food and drug regulator in 2007 for taking bribes to approve untested medicine.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Qiao Long and in Cantonese by Fung Yat-yiu. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Additional translation by Jia Yuan. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.