Africa Court News

Gambia Trial Opens Over Children’s Cough Syrup Deaths

A trial opened Tuesday in The Gambia’s capital Banjul over the deaths last year of small children who took a cough syrup made by the India-based Maiden Pharmaceuticals.

Some 70 children aged 5 and under died in 2022 after taking the over-the-counter medicines, leading to a national outcry in the West African nation of about 2.5 million people.

Justice Ebrima Jaiteh of the High Court in Banjul adjourned the proceedings until November 7 after finding that three state defendants who had failed to appear “lacked diligence”.

Nineteen plaintiffs representing family members who died filed the civil suit in July, according to Salieu Taal, president of The Gambia Bar Association and one of the lawyers representing them.

The families are suing five defendants — Maiden Pharmaceuticals, local distributor Atlantic Pharmaceuticals, the Medical Controls Agency (MCA), the Ministry of Health and Attorney General Dawda A. Jallow — to demand they admit that the children were killed by consuming contaminated medicines.

They are also suing for an admission that the MCA failed in its statutory duty to regulate the quality and safety of medicines.

They are demanding 15 million Dalasis (about $230,000) per child in damages.

– Motion dismissed –

None of the five defendants were present on Tuesday.

The health ministry, MCA and attorney general requested a delay to the start of the trial, a motion the judge dimissed. He ordered the three to pay 10,000 Dalasis to the plaintiffs.

The trial had already been delayed in July after the attorney general and health ministry claimed they had not been served subpoenas with adequate time to familiarise themselves with the lawsuit.

Beginning in September last year, The Gambia ordered a recall of several cough and cold medications, as well as all products manufactured by the Indian laboratory Maiden Pharmaceuticals from which the adulterated syrups originated, after the deaths from kidney failure of at least 70 young children.

It subsequently banned all products from the Indian firm.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), lab tests found “unacceptable amounts” of diethylene glycol and ethylene glycol, which are commonly used as antifreeze and can be fatal when ingested.

The toxic impact from these substances includes “acute kidney injury which may lead to death”, the agency has said.

– ‘Want justice’ –

Speaking to AFP in October 2022, grieving parents called on President Adama Barrow’s government to take action.

“President Barrow should sack the health minister, but instead of sacking him, he was praising the minister,” said Wuri Bailo Keita, whose two-year-old daughter Fatoumatta was among the victims.

“We want justice for these children.”

In July, a government taskforce announced its finding that four cough syrups imported from India were responsible for the deaths.

At the time, Health Minister Dr Ahmadou Lamin Samateh said there were failings in regulatory and import checks of the medication, beginning with the products not being registered with the MCA.

He said the agency’s head had been dismissed.

The Gambian government also said it was exploring options to take legal action against the Indian manufacturer.

In the aftermath of the scandal, India launched an investigation and shut down the Maiden Pharmaceuticals plant last October.

In January, the WHO announced a call for “immediate and coordinated action” to eradicate non-compliant and falsified medicines, in particular tainted cough syrups linked to the deaths of 300 children in Gambia, Indonesia and Uzbekistan.