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Tainted drugs suspected in India sterilization deaths

Doctors tended to a woman who underwent a sterilization surgery at Chhattisgarh Institute of Medical Sciences hospital in India on Wednesday.
Doctors tended to a woman who underwent a sterilization surgery at Chhattisgarh Institute of Medical Sciences hospital in India on Wednesday. Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

NEW DELHI — Post-mortem examinations of several women who died after surgery at a government sterilization camp last weekend in central India suggest that tainted medications might be to blame, rather than the unsanitary conditions or the assembly-line haste of the operations, a district medical officer said Thursday.

Initially, health officials suspected that 12 women succumbed to septic shock from infections contracted during their tubal ligation operations Saturday, in the state of Chhattisgarh. The surgeon who operated on most of them, Dr. R.K. Gupta, was arrested Wednesday on charges of culpable homicide.

However, the district medical officer, Dr. M.A. Jeemani, said Thursday that tainted medicines might be to blame.

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The deaths have drawn international attention to the practice, common in India, of offering women cash and other incentives to be sterilized at “fairs” or “camps” where surgeons operate one after the other on large numbers of patients. At the Saturday fair, a surgeon was reported to have operated 83 times in one day.

But in recent days, the investigation has focused on the two packets of pills sent home with each patient after surgery, one containing ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic, and the other containing the anti-inflammatory pain reliever ibuprofen.

One clue pointing to the pills was another death and scores of hospitalizations from separate sterilization clinics overseen by another surgeon two days later. That surgeon, Dr. K.K. Sao, said there was a third set of patients as well, people who did not undergo surgery, but were given medicine from the same batches for other reasons. One such patient who died Thursday was a 75-year-old man, he said.

State officials in the district have confiscated shipments of ciprofloxacin and ibuprofen.

Roopchand Siras, a barber from the village of Amsena whose wife died Monday after undergoing sterilization, said health officials had “ordered that the medicines should be seized,” and came to his house to collect the remaining pills. Another resident, Bedan Bai, said her granddaughter began vomiting an hour after taking her first dose of ciprofloxacin and later died.

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The Chhattisgarh state government said it had halted the distribution of drugs made by two Indian pharmaceutical companies, Medisafe Spirit and Medicare Spirit. “Complaints were received against the two companies for supplying substandard medicines,” a statement posted on Twitter by the state government said.