Shamsuddin Ahmed asks the government to be held accountable for its lack of action.
There is no denying that in the name of free market economy there has been a mushroom growth of private business enterprises in Bangladesh that undermines the control of the government in terms of their business operations along with the quality of the products and services they offer to the people. In most cases we have far too many of them in a sector where probably a few would suffice. Imagine the number of brands of so-called mineral water produced and marketed in the country. India, a giant in comparison to our size, population and economy, has much fewer brands of mineral water. Isn't there an overindulgence in whatever springs up, in the hope of making short-term profit in the most dishonest and unscrupulous fashion? Look at the number of private TV channels, news papers, private banks, insurance companies, private universities and medical colleges, private clinics, laboratories and diagnostic centres, pharmaceutical companies etc, to name a few. As for the quality of their services and products, the less said the better.
Needless to say that the government has to play a proactive role in that it must not allow private enterprises to grow to a level where it cannot effectively control the quality of its services and products. In the event of any laxity on the part of the government, it is the people, the marginalized teeming millions who suffer most. Their suffering and pain is exacerbated when the government remains focused more on serving the upper spectrum of society rather than the poor and the have-nots. This is exactly what has happened recently. It has been reported that over the last one and a half months some 34 babies with acute renal failure were admitted to Dhaka Shishu Hospital and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University Hospital. Of them, 25 babies have died so far, all having taken paracetamol syrup manufactured by Rid Pharmaceutical Company in Brahmanbaria BSCIC area. Laboratory tests conducted on the paracetamol syrup of the Rid Company revealed that the drug contained poisonous Diethylene Glycol, used mainly in Tannery and Rubber industries. The only reason for such unethical behaviour of the company owners was to make a little extra cash since Diethylene Glycol is a cheaper filler for Propylene Glycol. Professor ABM Faroque of the department of pharmaceutical technology of Dhaka University is reported to have told the media: “Had the company followed the quality control mechanism it could not use Diothylene Glycol instead of Propylene Glycol. Perhaps the company had no mechanism to test it all.” The Drug Administration has since sealed off Rid Pharmaceutical. But this is no punishment for the offence the drug company has committed.
But it is not Rid Pharmaceutical alone, which as a drug manufacturing company has committed a criminal offence by producing and marketing a spurious drug. The Drug Administration, the government watch dog itself is equally to blame because it failed to control the quality of drugs manufactured and marketed by the company, which was its duty. The company received its licence in 2006 and began marketing 12 drug items. Though the company had permission to manufacture paracetamol suspension, it started producing paracetamol syrup in the package of suspension. Granted that this particular company's owners and the entire workforce in the manufacturing sector are simply rogues, which is why they could commit a crime like killing innocent children with their spurious drugs. However, what about the health ministry and the Drug Administration authority? How is it that the Health Minister, the Health Secretary, the Director of General Drug Administration and their staff live in oblivion of their mandatory responsibility to assure the prevention of a company without a licence to market such horridly spurious manufactured drug, which led to deaths of infants? The point to note here is that the spurious drug manufactured by the company is meant for babies and that all the 25 babies who died by taking this drug are from poor families who could not afford to buy expensive and imported quality medicine for their children.
Official sources indicate that there are 24 drug superintendents and inspectors at field level and two government drug testing laboratories to ensure that no spurious drugs are produced indigenously and marketed in the country. Supposing that these were not adequate to ensure effective quality control of drugs in the market and that more technical manpower and resources were needed, then why were additional manpower and drug testing laboratories not sanctioned earlier? If there appears to be no dearth of funds to buy new and expensive cars for Ministers and MPs, and increase further their emoluments and perks and privileges, why this dilly dallying and utter indifference over a public sector which deals with health of the people? Our Ministers and MPs, executive government officials and political elites, in all their effrontery usage of their wealth and public wealth, can procure expensive foreign medical treatment. Thus, as there is no need for them to be concerned with the health service available in our nation, the vast multitude of the poor people who are entirely dependant on the public healthcare system is left to suffer.
It is no small matter that 25 budding human lives have been lost before they could blossom fully just because their parents, being poor, could not afford quality medicine and also because we as a nation failed to prevent them from taking a spurious drug, namely paracitamol syrup manufactured by a local pharmaceutical company. It is manslaughter pure and simple. In a democracy, the Minister of Health would have resigned voluntarily and a few other heads of the Drug Administration would have stepped aside by now for such criminal lapses. Will Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina set an example of accountability of her government by sacking the Health Minister for his failure to deliver, resulting in the tragic loss of so many budding human lives?
Brig Gen Shamsuddin Ahmed is former Military Secretary to the President.