San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Panamanian Death Toll Still Rising from Poison

PANAMA CITY – The number of Panamanians who have died after using medicines contaminated with a toxic substance rose to 37 last weekend, according to the Health Ministry.

Another 82 people are suffering from the kidney syndrome caused by the poison diethylene glycol, a substance for industrial use that was inadvertently mixed in with four medicines manufactured by the Social Security administration, or CSS.

Authorities have withdrawn the four medicines from stores and health centers, and consumers have been asked to return the products, which have been prohibited by the government. The CSS laboratory that prepared the products was closed until the official investigation of the matter is concluded.

After several weeks in September of initial uncertainty in the face of a growing number of people falling mysteriously ill, and some dying, health authorities investigating the situation found the poisonous substance in the four CSS products (NT, Oct. 13).

Since then, the number of deaths has nearly doubled.

The medicines produced by the CSS laboratory at which the toxic substance was detected include a sugar-free expectorant cough syrup, a diphenhydramine syrup, calamine lotion and a hydrocolloid paste for topical use.

Diethylene glycol, an alcohol, causes acute kidney problems with affected persons suffering from nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and urinary problems. In the worst cases, the chemical causes kidney failure, partial paralysis and eventual death.

At least two top officials from the local Grupo Comercial Medicom corporation have been arrested and charged with crimes against public health, after the Public Ministry investigation found that the organization sold the contaminated glycerin used in the four medicines.

Panamanian Attorney General Ana Matilde Gómez said that the raw material for the medicines was bought from a firm in Spain, identified by the local press as Rasfer Internacional, S.A.. The Panamanian government had asked the Spanish government to provide “judicial assistance” in the probe, she said.

CSS director Rene Luciani has said that the raw material was purchased in July 2003 and was used last June when the first case of the renal syndrome caused by the poison was detected.


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