The number of deaths from a tainted Nigerian teething formula has more than doubled, with 84 children killed by the syrup that contained a thickening agent normally used in brake fluid and antifreeze, the Health Ministry said. The victims have ranged in age from 2 months to 7 years old, the ministry said in a statement late Thursday. It indicated that about 75 percent of the 111 children who had been sickened since the poisonous batch of My Pikin Baby Teething Mixture hit shelves in November have died.
"The death of any Nigerian child is a great loss to the nation," Health Minister Babatunde Oshotimehin said in the statement. "The federal ministry of health sincerely regrets this painful incidence and sympathizes with the nation and the families directly affected."
Health officials said in early December that 34 children had died up to that point and that stores were returning their stocks of the formula meant to stop pain in teething children. The Health Ministry statement didn't say if it believed all the tainted dosages had been returned.
Many bottles of the paracetemol-based formula were determined to contain a high concentration of diethylene glycol, commonly found in antifreeze and brake fluid. Exposure can cause kidney and liver damage and may be fatal in large amounts.
The afflicted children were stricken with fever, convulsions, diarrhea and vomiting, and were unable to urinate after being given the product.
The deadly agent entered the production process for My Pikin Baby Teething Mixture when an official with the Lagos-based maker procured the tainted ingredient from an unregistered chemical dealer in a sprawling slum near the city's main dump, the National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control has said. Several officials of the pharmaceutical maker, Barewa Pharmaceuticals Ltd., were under arrest along with several other suspects accused of helping provide the tainted ingredient. A phone number listed for the company was not working Friday, and officials could not immediately be reached for comment. The food and drug agency said the first sickened child was taken for treatment on Nov. 19 in Nigeria's far northern region. Similar cases were documented in subsequent days in Nigeria's densely populated southwest, and investigators isolated the product as common to all the ailing children.
Health officials haven't said how many bottles of the bad formula were believed to have existed.
Officials say Barewa Pharmaceuticals appears to have been told it was purchasing propylene glycol, a normal ingredient in the teething formula.
They said that the pharmaceutical company had always bought that ingredient through approved channels before, but had turned to a new source for the ingredient used in the tainted batch. Diethylene glycol is commonly found in antifreeze and brake fluid, and sometimes used illegally as a cheaper alternative to glycerin, which thickens toothpaste.
The contaminant has been implicated in poisoning cases around the world, including in Panama, where at least 116 people died after taking contaminated cough syrup, antihistamine tablets, calamine lotion and rash ointment made at a government laboratory. Nigeria has been plagued by tainted, fake or untested drugs since it gained independence from Britain in 1960 and around 200 babies died in 1990 in similar circumstances.
The food and drug administration, however, has drawn plaudits from Nigerians in recent years for having cut down on counterfeit or dangerous medicines.