This article originally appeared on VICE Romania.
Last Friday, about a thousand protesters gathered in Bucharest's University Square. "Silence kills," "You diluted our health," and "Your incompetence is our death," read signs held up by some of them. They had taken to the streets to express their anger at Romanian authorities, who had authorized the use of faulty disinfection products in hospitals. These products turned out to be heavily diluted—about ten times more than was claimed on their labels. That malpractice put thousands of patients in these hospitals at risk of getting infections.
This all came to light in an investigation by the newspaper Gazeta Sporturilor, published in late April. The paper uncovered that the disinfectants used by medical personnel in more than 2,000 operating rooms throughout the country—to clean their hands and their medical instruments, among other things—were never inspected by governmental health authorities. The quality of the products was only guaranteed by their manufacturer—a company called Hexi Pharma.
But when the newspaper had the products tested at a private laboratory, it became clear that disinfectants had been diluted—to increase Hexi Pharma's profits. As a consequence of this dilution, the number of hospital-acquired infections in Romania has gone up in the last few years.
The scandal broke out six months after a fire killed 64 people in nightclub Colectiv in downtown Bucharest. Twenty-seven people died at the scene from the fire or from smoke inhalation, while another 33 died in the following weeks in hospitals—succumbing to their injuries and bacterial infections.
The Gazeta Sporturilor also found that Dan Alexandru Condrea is not only the main shareholder of Hexi Pharma, but also controlled Unilab—one of the laboratories where Hexi Pharma had its products tested. Hexi Pahrma also had many government contracts signed with hospitals around Romania. On top of that, it recently came out that the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) knew about the problem and had informed authorities several times in the last few years.
"All these legal beneficiaries received constant notifications about the irregularities in Romania's public healthcare system. Over the past five years, the SRI has sent about a hundred messages, including ones on matters related to hospital-acquired infections," according to SRI spokesperson, Ovidiu Marincea.
The fact that Romanian hospitals do not report cases of hospital-acquired infection out of fear of being legally sanctioned—even for the unavoidable ones—is a well-known issue in Romania. That fact explains why official European reports note that Romania has a rate of only 0.2 percent for such infections, while in other European countries that rate is between 3 and 5 percent.
"We know that's impossible—we can't have the cleanest hospitals in Europe," said former–Health Minister Patriciu Achimaș Cadariu at a press conference on the subject. He was probably right there: European research says Romanian patients have the hardest time of all European patients getting rid of bacteria they have contracted in hospitals.
Romanian medical authorities responded to the scandal by promising to look into how efficient Hexi Pharma's disinfectants were. Last week, the government came back with reports announcing that out of the 3,526 tests it had carried out at a national level, only 5 percent of the Hexi Pharma product samples did not match the contents or proportions on the label. That same research also claimed that other manufacturers than Hexi Pharma were selling disinfectants were even less efficient than advertised. This government report further angered Romanians, who were skeptical about the authenticity outcome, to say the least.
On top of all that, Romanian investigative platform RISE Project showed in a publication last week that Hexi Pharma owner Aurelian Condrea used an offshore account in Cyprus for his own profit. Condrea would buy one liter of disinfectant for $9 from Germany, which he would then sell for about $115 to his own company, Hexi Pharma.
Meanwhile, Romanian prosecutors began a criminal investigation into how Hexi Pharma gained a monopoly on the market by signing thousands of contracts with public hospitals in Romania. The Hexi Pharma factory has halted production and has assured it will cooperate fully with the investigation.
When the health ministry claimed only 5 percent of Hexi Pharma's samples had been diluted, several media demanded that the names of hospitals where bad samples had been found were made public. The ministry refused to do so, claiming it wasn't allowed to in light of the ongoing criminal investigation. VICE Romania then encouraged its readers last Thursday to bombard the Romanian government with emails asking to disclose the names of the hospitals that presented a public risk of infection.
Prosecutors told VICE Romania that "there was no written correspondence between the prosecutors' office and the health ministry." That would mean that the health ministry had lied when it claimed it couldn't name those hospitals because of the criminal investigation.
Then on Friday, after 400 people had flooded the inboxes of Romanian medical authorities, the health ministry published the list of the 50 hospitals that had used faulty disinfectants. Among them were nine hospitals located in Bucharest, including four emergency medical units. This lie—and probably also the fact that he had missed a governmental crisis meeting—led to Health Minister Patriciu Achimaș Cadariu resigning yesterday.
Current Romanian PM Dacian Ciolos has temporarily taken over the position of health minister and has been working on a tactical reform plan, together with several hospital directors and specialists from the ministry. That plan should be put in effect in June. Ciolos has also promised in a press statement that all disinfectants and hospitals will be thoroughly inspected in the near future. Whether that reform will ever actually be put into effect is questionable: Romania has local and general elections coming up, and some politicians seem to care more about those than about the health of the Romanian people.