Cough syrup deaths: WHO urges 'immediate action' after 300 child deaths last year

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called for "immediate and concerted action" after the deaths of more than 300 children were linked to contaminated cough syrup last year. 

In 2022, more than 300 children in Gambia, Indonesia and Uzbekistan - who were mostly under the age of five - died of acute kidney injury, in deaths associated with contaminated medicines, the WHO said.

The over-the-counter medicines contained high levels of diethylene glycol and ethylene glycol, the WHO warning added.

"These contaminants are toxic chemicals used as industrial solvents and antifreeze agents that can be fatal even taken in small amounts, and should never be found in medicines," the organisation said.

The Philippines, Timor Leste, Senegal and Cambodia also have the medicines on sale and could be impacted, Reuters reported.

The WHO called for action across its 194 member states to prevent more deaths.

"Since these are not isolated incidents, WHO calls on various key stakeholders engaged in the medical supply chain to take immediate and coordinated action," its experts said on Monday.

The WHO has already sent specific product alerts in October, November and January, requesting some "substandard products" are removed from circulation to "prevent harm to patients".

The alerts covered some cough syrups made by India's Maiden Pharmaceuticals and Marion Biotech, as well as similar medicines made by four Indonesian manufacturers - PT Yarindo Farmatama, PT Universal Pharmaceutical, PT Konimex and PT AFI Pharma - that were sold domestically.

The companies involved have either denied that their products have been contaminated or declined to comment while investigations are ongoing.

Read more:
Medicinal syrup ingredients may be linked to child deaths in Indonesia
Uzbekistan links 18 child deaths to cough syrup from India

But the WHO reiterated its call for the products to be removed from circulation, as well as urging countries to ensure that any medicines for sale are approved by competent authorities.

It also asked governments and regulators to assign resources to inspect manufacturers, increase market surveillance and take action where required.

While manufacturers should only buy raw ingredients from qualified suppliers, test their products more thoroughly and keep records of the process, the WHO added.

The WHO also said suppliers and distributors should check for signs of falsification and only distribute or sell medicines authorised for use.