San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Four Years Later, Victims of Panama Mass Poisoning Demand Justice

PANAMA CITY – After four years of waiting for the government to take action, the surviving victims of tainted cough medicines distributed by the government staged  protests demanding that those responsible be put on trial and that better health care be provided to the nation.

People affected by the poisoning, as well as family members of those who died, joined together Friday at the Right to Health and Life Committee, something they did every week this October, to commemorate the month when authorities officially informed them of the medical catastrophe.

Four years ago, hundreds of people insured under Panama’s social security system (CSS), most of them children and the elderly, went to medicial centers to receive treatment for common illnesses such as colds and skin irritations.

The medicines that some were given, however, caused a mass poisoning that up to now has taken 153 lives and left thousands of people affected, many without even knowing it.

Diethylene glycol, a toxic industrial alcohol not meant for human consumption, was used instead of pure glycerine in the preparation of medicines in the CSS laboratories, mainly for cough medicines. According to estimates by the Attorney General’s Office, the medicines were taken by at least 6,000 people.

Diethylene glycol is a chemical used in brake fluid and radiator coolant that causes those who swallow it to suffer nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, drastic reduction in the flow of urine, and sometimes kidney failure, paralysis and death.

When the first deaths from these contaminated medicines occurred, it was determined that the medicines were mostly taken by patients with high blood pressure, diabetes and kidney malfunction.

Demonstrators are now protesting the lack of prosecutions, and are also demanding better care for the approximately 700 people, 8 of them children, who have been diagnosed as victims of the poisoning.

The president of the committee, Gabriel Pascual, told EFE that they have asked the government for quicker, easier ways to get their medicines, which sometimes take weeks to acquire, during which time patients’ illnesses only get worse.

He said that while it is positive that construction is underway for a special center for treating victims in the capital, the immediate needs of the patients are not being adequately attended to.

The judicial process is still at the stage of hearings, but the Attorney General´s Office plans to present its case to Panama’s Supreme Court at the end of this year or the beginning of next, special prosecutor Dimas Guevara told EFE.

The prosecutor said that charges have been brought against 20 people, including Angel de la Cruz, the only person in custody, who was the manager of the company that supplied the poisonous substance to the CSS labs.

In Spain, the Rasfer Internacional company, and its manager, Asunción Criado, are being investigated as the result of a lawsuit presented by the Panamanian victims. Rasfer has been blamed for delivering diethylene glycol imported from China to the CSS labs instead of pure glycerine.

The national director of the CSS Special Toxicology Center, Celia Canton, said that authorities are aware of the victims’ needs, but still lack the tools and the economic resources to deal with all requests immediately.

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