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Page last updated at 12:12 GMT, Friday, 6 March 2009

Medical waste scandal scars Gujarat

By Nadene Ghouri in Gujarat

Medical waste
Some medical waste was gathered by staff and sold for reuse

A mutant strain of hepatitis B has now killed more than 70 people in the Indian state of Gujarat - part of what is rapidly becoming one of India's biggest medical scandals.

The outbreak has been traced to used and dirty hypodermic needles which should have been incinerated but instead were simply washed, repackaged and sold back into the medical industry for reuse.

Within the past week police have discovered a staggering 75 tonnes of neatly packaged waste - including needles, paediatric droppers and syringes - waiting to be resold to private medical clinics.

Police describe the waste scandal as a "serious organised crime racket".

Clinics closed

Two doctors in the town of Modasa have been charged with culpable homicide after it was revealed many of the victims had been treated at their clinic.

This entire saga of medical waste trading is disgusting and we will not spare the offenders
Dr Ramesh Shah,
Gujarat Pollution Control Board
Dr Govind Patel and his son Chintan ran a private general health clinic and are alleged to have used the same syringes and needles on multiple patients.

Authorities admit they have no idea how many thousands of dirty needles may already be in use in medical clinics across the state - they say that they are unlikely to find them all.

There is no law forcing the 13,000 private medical practitioners across Gujarat to reveal where they bought their equipment.

Police said many were "refusing to co-operate and admit if they bought these dangerous tools or not".

They are targeting private medical clinics, mostly those offering Ayurvedic holistic treatments, a popular form of medicine across India.

Police said many of those running the clinics had no proper qualifications even though they called themselves doctors.

Fifteen such clinics have been shut down with their owners banned for life from reopening.

Incineration

"We have lodged police complaints against 50 traders. Some had fake certificates and some had no [visible] qualifications at all. We have also served notices on 952 clinics, laboratories and hospitals ordering them to comply with rules on disposal of medical waste," said a spokesman for the Gujarat municipal corporation.

Hepatitis sufferer in Gujarat
The hepatitis outbreak has highlighted the scandal
So far the list of those supplying needles has included pharmaceutical companies, individual doctors and a state hospital.

At that hospital, dangerous medical waste that had been left out for incineration was collected by cleaners and porters and then sold on to gangs who traded in it.

"Everyone got their cut," said a police spokesman.

The authorities in Gujarat were aware that many clinics in the state were unsafe but had failed to act sooner because of the "high regard for doctors", says Dr Ramesh Shah, secretary of the Gujarat Pollution Control Board.

"It's time to act tough and we have done exactly that. This entire saga of medical waste trading is disgusting and we will not spare the offenders. I am aghast doctors can risk lives like this for the cost of small change."

Map
But the closures and arrests are seen as too little too late by an angry public.

"They wait till we die before they act. The poor people of this area cannot afford medicines so we are forced to use these quacks," says Haroon Kumar, whose brother died of the virus three days ago.

The youngest victim of the outbreak was a newborn baby whose mother had contracted the virus just before giving birth.

The baby survived for just eight days before succumbing to the virus.

Doctors' unions in the state say individual doctors have been unfairly targeted by angry patients and say their members are threatening to strike unless the authorities do more to protect them from assaults by patients.

Health Minister Jayarayan Vyas said strict new waste management rules would be introduced to protect patients but added doctors also needed protecting.

"At present there is no law to prevent patients manhandling, abusing or assaulting the doctors. Those to blame will be brought to book but innocent doctors must not suffer unfair consequences."

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SEE ALSO
Gujarat starts mass vaccination
24 Feb 09 |  South Asia
Probe into India hepatitis deaths
20 Feb 09 |  South Asia

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