Panama tracking down poison victims

Panamanian investigators asked health authorities Saturday to track down patients whose names appeared on 6,000 bottles of medication contaminated with a chemical commonly found in antifreeze and brake fluid.

The bottles were handed over to the government two years ago when at least 116 people died after taking poisonous cough syrup, antihistamine tablets, calamine lotion and rash ointment made at a government laboratory. The medicines were found to be contaminated with diethylene glycol, the AP reported.

Investigators gave the Health Ministry a report on the 6,000 bottles in the hopes of determining how the patients were affected and if they still need treatment, the attorney general's office said in a statement.

The report includes the names of the patients, the doctors who prescribed the drugs and the institutions that provided them. The statement did not say how many patients were named or if any were among the 116 who died, and attempts to reach officials for further details were unsuccessful.

Relatives of the victims question official estimates of how many people were sickened by the medicine, and say the death toll could be as high as 300.

The leader of a committee representing victims' families applauded the initiative, saying his group has long urged a more thorough investigation.

"For us this is very important because it has been one of our demands," Gabriel Pascual told RPC Radio. "Time will show we are right, and health authorities will have to really commit to helping everyone who was affected."

Investigators have determined that at least 86 people survived after ingesting the tainted medicine. The government has compensated at least 185 victims or their families, spending at least US$7 million (euro4.5 million).

The chemical allegedly was made by a Chinese company that sold it to a Spanish company saying it was 99.5 percent pure glycerin, a sweetener and thickening agent commonly used in drugs. The Spanish company then allegedly sold it to a company in Panama.

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