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Cough syrups manufactured by two Indian companies have been pulled from shelves in the Gambia
Cough syrups manufactured by two Indian companies have been pulled from shelves in the GambiaImage: MILAN BERCKMANS/AFP
HealthGlobal issues

WHO calls for 'immediate' action after cough syrup deaths

January 24, 2023

Contaminated cough syrups have been linked to hundreds of child deaths in Africa and Asia. The WHO is reportedly investigating potential connections between the pharmaceutical companies that made the products.


The World Health Organization (WHO) on Monday urged "immediate and coordinated action" to root out contaminated medicines that have been linked to the deaths of hundreds of children in Africa and Asia.

More than 300 children died from contaminated cough syrup in the Gambia, Uzbekistan and Indonesia in 2022. Many of the victims were younger than five years old.

The incidents are believed to be caused by the contamination of Indian and Indonesian-made cough syrups with dangerously high levels of diethylene glycol and ethylene glycol.

"These contaminants are toxic chemicals used as industrial solvents and antifreeze agents that can be fatal even taken in small amounts, and should never be found in medicines," the WHO said.

Indonesia bans cough syrups after child deaths

Investigation reportedly underway

In recent months, the WHO asked people to stop using cough syrups made by two Indian companies, Maiden Pharmaceuticals and Marion Biotech, after they were linked to the deaths in the Gambia and Uzbekistan, respectively. Both companies shuttered their factories in the aftermath.

The WHO also issued an alert for people to stop using certain cough syrups made by four Indonesian companies: PT Yarindo Farmatama, PT Universal Pharmaceutical, PT Konimex, PT AFI Farma.

An anonymous source inside the WHO told news agency Reuters on Tuesday that the global health body is investigating potential links between the six manufactures from India and Indonesia, including whether or not they used the same suppliers.

The WHO also is considering whether to advise families around the world to reassess the use of cough syrups for children in general while questions remain over the safety of some of these products, the anonymous source said.

WHO urges improved national screening

In its official announcement on Monday, the WHO urged governments and regulators to detect substandard medical products and remove them from circulation.

Indian authorities have launched multiple probes into the pharmaceutical companies linked to deaths in the Gambia and Uzbekistan.

Cough syrup parents in India demand answers

However, the WHO said on Monday that national medical regulators need to "assign appropriate resources to improve and increase risk-based inspections of manufacturing sites" to meet international standards.

It also urged medicine manufactures to "keep accurate, complete and proper records" of the purchase and testing of different materials to help during investigations.

zc/kb (Reuters, AFP, dpa)

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