Hundreds of furious parents clashed with riot police outside government offices in the northern Chinese city of Xi'an on Thursday after a local kindergarten gave children antiviral medicines without their knowledge or consent.
The principal and the doctor at the Fengyun kindergarten in the Shaanxi provincial capital have been detained by police after the school was found to be giving prescription antiviral drugs to healthy children, official media reported.
Parents had converged on the Xi'an municipal government offices late on Wednesday, but no one had come out to speak with them, so they had stayed there, a Fengyun mother surnamed Jia told RFA.
"We are just regular people, and we tried defending our rights to the government, but they didn't resolve the issue," Jia said.
"So we decided to come here to seek them out."
Parents held banners saying "I only have one kid," and "You are feeding banned medicine to our kids," former Shaanxi TV journalist Ma Xiaoming said after visiting the scene on Thursday.
Four days of pills
Meanwhile, Jia said the parents had failed in their bid to hold talks with the mayor or provincial governor.
"When we got to the gates, the riot police shoved the parents back and beat them up, shoving them around and using violence," Jia said.
"Some of the parents were lying on the ground, injured, and some were carried or dragged away."
Jia said many of the details of the case were discovered by a parent who broke in and read the school records.
"That person found ... that they had given these pills out to the children over four days; more than 2,800 tablets," she said. Fengyun has a total of 690 children currently enrolled.
"This person was taken away by plainclothes police."
She said a journalist contacted by the parents had apologized to them, but declined to cover the story because of political pressure from their editors.
A pill a day
"The government will organize medical experts to analyze the pharmacological effects of the medicine and publish the results as soon as possible," the English-language tabloid Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, quoted a local party official as saying.
Zhao Baoying, the principal of the kindergarten funded by the China Soong Ching Ling Foundation, told state media that moroxydine hydrochloride was given to the children "to prevent viral infections."
Children had been given one pill a day over three days during the current semester, reports said.
Reports first surfaced that all wasn't well at Fengyun on March 6, when a parent surnamed Cheng said her 5-year-old daughter on March 6 told her about a "pill-taking activity" at Fengyun Kindergarten in Xian's Lianhu district, the Beijing Times reported.
The pills were later identified by the mother as moroxydine hydrochloride, a prescription antiviral drug made by a pharmaceutical company in Taiyuan, capital of neighboring Shanxi province.
Some children confirmed that teachers in the kindergarten, which has 690 children, had fed them the pills on several occasions and asked them not to tell their parents, according to the Beijing Times report.
Another parent suspected that his five-year-old son's back pain and swollen genitals were the result of taking the medicine, the Global Times reported.
According to kindergarten records obtained by the parents, dated between 2009 and 2013, teachers would get a bottle of 100 pills every week for the 30 children in each class, the paper said.
Another Fengyun parent surnamed Hu said medical tests had revealed swollen glands in her child and one of their classmates.
"Some other kids were found to have hydronephrosis; that's a fact," Hu said. "They called us and our friends [to get us to send them back to class]," she said in a reference to municipal education bureau officials. Hydronephrosis denotes a swelling in the kidneys as the flow of urine is blocked.
"But they didn't send them back, because they were so sick."
Reported medicine discontinued
Calls to the Shaanxi provincial education bureau and to Xian's Lianhu district education bureau rang unanswered during office hours on Thursday.
Parents have called publicly for an investigation into exactly what medicines were given to their children while they were at the school.
A former pharmaceutical businessman for Zhengzhou surnamed Sun said the medicines reportedly given to the children were antivirals aimed at boosting immunity to infection.
"Mostly they are used to fight colds, flus, headaches and fever, that kind of thing," Sun said. "But they were discontinued by the state food and drug agency."
"Certain designated factories were allowed to keep making them, however, but they haven't been freely available on the market, and they need a prescription from a doctor before you're allowed to take them," he said.
An official who answered the phone at the Xian municipal health bureau declined to comment on the case.
"We don't usually give interviews; journalists here can approach us directly," she said. "We can't take phone interviews because we need to confirm your identity."
"Secondly, it's not convenient for us to talk about these matters with you. Medicines aren't in our remit, but are regulated by the food and drug bureaus," she added.
Some parents said their children have complained of stomachache or night sweats, according to the Beijing Times.
The kindergarten has currently suspended operations and had its assets frozen, the paper said.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.