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India opposition leader blasts sterilisation deaths

NEW DELHI: India’s opposition Congress leader Rahul Gandhi demanded Saturday a “thorough probe” into the sterilisation surgery deaths of 13 women as local media alleged the victims were treated with antibiotics contaminated with rat poison.

Police announced Friday the arrests of the head of a drug manufacturing company and his son on suspicion of destroying evidence in the cases of the women who died in central India after the sterilisation operations.

“This isn’t just a case of negligence but a case of corruption, of fake drugs which is the responsibility of the government,” said Gandhi, scion of the Congress party dynasty which suffered a crushing defeat in recent national elections.

Counterfeit or adulterated medicines are a significant health problem in the country, as well as for buyers of India’s drugs abroad, with the World Health Organisation calculating as many as one in five drugs made in India might be spurious.

“The first thing that needs to be done is a thorough probe of what happened here,” Gandhi added in televised remarks in the district of Bilaspur in central Chhattisgarh state where the deaths occurred.

The Hindustan Times daily reported an analysis of the antibiotic, ciprofloxacin, given to the women found it had been adulterated with zinc phosphide, a chemical used in rat poison.

The deaths have triggered widespread criticism of government-run schemes offering poor women cash incentives to be sterilised, in what activists say are often horrifying assembly-line conditions.

Police arrested the plant head and his son after raiding their drugs factory, Mahawar Pharma, in Chhattisgarh, where dozens more women were still in hospital after undergoing surgery.

One official told AFP authorities found “drugs had been burned in large quantities” on the factory premises.

Separately the Indian Express reported the state health minister said two years ago the company was found guilty of drug-quality offences — yet authorities kept buying medicines from the plant.

The symptoms shown by the women who became unwell after undergoing the sterilisations were similar to how the body reacts to zinc phosphide, doctors in Bilaspur said.

After the surgery, the women suffered nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain and died from such causes as kidney failure, cardiac arrest and respiratory breakdown, the newspaper said.

Police have also detained the doctor who performed the operations, R.K. Gupta, who has blamed poor-quality drugs for the deaths.

Human Rights Watch says health workers are coercing women into getting sterilised to meet targets to control growth of India’s billion-plus population.

Sterilisation is one of the most popular methods of family planning in India.

The National Commission for Women chairperson Lalitha Kumaramangalam said India’s sterilisation policy has been “dumped” on women.

“It is only the women who are targeted on issues like sterilisation,” she told reporters in New Delhi.

“Women should be offered the entire bouquet of contraceptive choices available for family planning instead of just one method,” she said. -AFP

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