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Monday, 19 November, 2001, 10:55 GMT
Unicef denies Assam vaccine deaths
Child in hospital after receiving Vitamin A syrup
Many children were admitted to hospital after taking the syrup
The United Nations says it is confident that reports that several children have died in the Indian state of Assam as a result of a UN-sponsored anti-blindness campaign are false.

If reports say the vitamin solutions were contaminated, we will take the harshest of legal steps against Unicef

Bhumidhar Barman
Assam's Health Minister
Eight days ago, hundreds of thousands of children in Assam were given syrup containing Vitamin A in a campaign organised by the UN's children's organisation, Unicef, to prevent blindness.

Shortly after, thousands of children were reported to fallen ill because of the syrup and now the Assam state government says at least 16 children have died.

But Unicef told BBC News Online that it did not believe there was any problem with the syrup, and that it was being wrongly connected with child deaths from other causes.

'Extremely worried'

On Sunday, Assam's senior health official, SN Thakuria, said at least 16 children had died after being given the Vitamin A doses. Some reports say the figure is higher.

Most of the deaths were reported in the southern district of Silchar.

Map showing Silchar in Assam

That statement was in sharp contrast to comments by Assam's Health Minister, Bhumidhar Barman, earlier last week that only one or two children had died.

Unicef supplied the vitamin medicine for the anti-blindness campaign.

But it was the Assam Government which organised its distribution.

Mr Barman says his government is "extremely worried" by the situation as it waits for the results of laboratory tests on the syrup.

And he had these words for Unicef: "If reports say the vitamin solutions were contaminated, we will take the harshest of legal steps against Unicef."

Early reports gave two possible explanations for the child deaths:

  • Children could have been given more than the prescribed two millilitre dose
  • The syrup was out-of-date or of poor quality

Denials of responsibility

Local officials have dismissed the first theory.

"I personally visited the families and found out that the deaths were definitely not because of an overdose," Ashish Bhutani, a district magistrate, told the AFP news agency.

And Unicef insists none of the syrup it supplied was past its date for consumption or not up to standard.

Unicef says:

  • All the syrup it gave to the Assam Government had an expiry date of March 2003
  • All syrup it got from Indian suppliers had passed quality control checks by independent agencies in India

Unicef told BBC News Online on Monday that it believed it would be vindicated by the laboratory tests being carried out on the syrup.

Child in hospital after receiving Vitamin A syrup
Unicef say their medicine was fine

Sandie Blanchet, from Unicef's office in Delhi said "preliminary, non-official results from the tests" showed the syrup was not contaminated.

Unicef maintains that about 800 children under five years of age die every day in Assam.

Ms Blanchet said some children who were already dying were given the Vitamin A syrup. Then when they died, "rumours spread" that it was the syrup that killed them.

Official results are expected in the next few days.

Unicef also says that it is quite normal for children to suffer mild side-effects from the syrup.

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