How much is a dead child worth? That’s a question Alassan Kamaso has asked himself since government authorities called him and his wife, Mariama, a few days ago. They were offering them money for the death of their son – around $285 (£249). Kamaso warned the voices on the other end that he would not take their calls again, and then he hung up.
“Where will you go to buy life?” the 45-year-old said to VICE World News, remembering his son’s death in September. “It’s not anywhere in the world.”
Kamaso’s son, Musa, is one of 70 infants who died recently after taking cough syrups produced by Indian company Maiden Pharmaceuticals that may have contained harmful properties. The drug scandal has rocked the Gambia and thrown dozens of families into mourning. This week, the West African country’s gender ministry made calls to families of the dead children, offering a combined $20,000 (£17,000) in compensation. But many, like Kamaso, are rejecting the money, calling it an “insult.”
Indian authorities have suspended the operations of Maiden Pharmaceuticals. The company said it was “shocked to hear about the deaths,” which are believed to have been caused by what the World Health Organisation called “unacceptable amounts” of diethylene glycol and ethylene glycol – both toxic.
Gambian authorities meanwhile say they are still investigating the deaths. The country’s lawmakers have called for tighter restrictions on drug imports and legal action against Maiden following the deaths. But lawmakers have prioritised compensation, which has disappointed some families.
“We don’t want any money,” Kamaso told VICE World News. “We just want justice for our children. We want that company to be brought to book so that next time, people bringing these drugs won’t do it again.”
Suspicions about the toxic medicines first came in July, officials told Reuters, after doctors noticed a mysterious number of babies dying of renal failure. But it wasn’t until October when the World Health Organisation issued an alert on the Maiden-produced cough syrups that Gambian officials sprung into action, going door to door and physically removing the marked drug.
Diethylene glycol and ethylene glycol are sweet but toxic alcohols well known to cause acute kidney injury (AKI), among other fatal conditions.
It was too late for Musa. The 18-month-old died in September, after days of not being able to urinate. When doctors told Kamaso his little boy’s kidneys had failed, he and his wife could only stare at each other, dazed.
Maiden is one of many companies operating in India’s poorly regulated pharmaceuticals sector, many of which have sold generic and low-quality products to African countries with weak regulation systems. Maiden, in particular, has been blacklisted by states in India in the past for producing substandard drugs.
The cough syrups, not approved for Indian markets, were pushed exclusively to the Gambia. Some 50,000 bottles were imported into the country, officials believe, but only about 42,000 have been retrieved. There are fears the rest could end up in neighbouring countries' markets.
The Gambia is one of Africa’s smallest countries, and also one of its poorest. Its healthcare system is weak: There’s an almost 50-50 chance of a child dying under the age of five, and there are no drug testing labs to certify imported medicines. Officials investigating the syrup deaths have had to send samples to Ghana and Senegal.
Weeks after the deaths, their findings have still not been made public. But authorities this month said they haven't confirmed that all the deaths were definitively caused by the suspected syrups – some of the affected children were found not to have ingested them at all. Back in July, officials suspected E.coli bacteria, often found in contaminated food, was contributing to the deaths.
The estimated $285 (£249) for their losses is a small amount in the Gambia. But the sum is far from what bothers Kamaso. “When we take money, they might tell us to overlook it,” he says. It’s not something he’s willing to do. “Let them bring the company to the books. I don’t want anything.”