BILASPUR, India (AFP) – India’s opposition Congress leader Rahul Gandhi demanded Saturday a “thorough probe” into the deaths of 13 women undergoing sterilisation surgery as local media alleged the victims were treated with antibiotics contaminated with rat poison.
Police announced Friday the arrests of the head of a drug manufacturing company and his son on suspicion of destroying evidence in the cases of the women who died in central India after the sterilisation operations.
“This isn’t just a case of negligence but a case of corruption, of fake drugs which is the responsibility of the government,” said Gandhi, scion of the Congress party dynasty which suffered a crushing defeat in recent national elections.
Counterfeit or adulterated medicines are a significant health problem in the country, as well as for buyers of India’s drugs abroad, with the World Health Organization calculating as many as one in five drugs made in India might be spurious.
“The first thing that needs to be done is a thorough probe of what happened here,” Gandhi added in televised remarks in the district of Bilaspur in central Chhattisgarh state where the deaths occurred.
The Hindustan Times daily reported an analysis of the antibiotic, ciprofloxacin, given to the women found it had been adulterated with zinc phosphide, a chemical used in rat poison.
The deaths have triggered widespread criticism of government-run schemes offering poor women cash incentives to be sterilised, in what activists say are often horrifying assembly-line conditions.
Police arrested the plant head and his son after raiding their drugs factory, Mahawar Pharma, in Chhattisgarh, where dozens more women were still in hospital after undergoing surgery.
Officials also told AFP a significant quantity of “burnt medicines” were found on the factory premises.
Separately the Indian Express newspaper reported the Chattisgarh state health minister had told the legislature the company had been found guilty of drug quality offences — yet the state government continued to buy medicines from the plant.
The symptoms shown by the women who became unwell after undergoing the sterilisations were similar to how the body reacts to zinc phosphide, doctors in Bilaspur said.
After the surgery, the women suffered nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain and died from such causes as kidney failure, cardiac arrest and respiratory breakdown, the newspaper said.
“Such a chemical (as zinc phosphide) results in high mortality,” the Hindustan Times quoted one state official as saying.
Police have also detained the doctor who performed the operations, R.K. Gupta, who has blamed poor-quality drugs for the deaths.