updated 2/15/2008 11:00:51 AM ET 2008-02-15T16:00:51

Panama’s government has vastly underestimated the number of people who died from taking medications tainted with a chemical commonly found in antifreeze and brake fluid, family members and a lawyer for the victims said.

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The official death toll, set late last month in a report by the attorney general’s Legal Medicine and Forensic Science Institute, is 115. But victims’ families dispute the methodology used to produce that figure and estimate the number of poisoning deaths at up to 300.

“We do not agree with that investigation and we don’t share their methodology,” Gabriel Pascual, the leader of a committee representing victims’ families, told The Associated Press. Pascual says his grandmother died after taking poisoned cough syrup in October 2006.

In mid-2006, people in Panama began dying after using cough syrup, antihistamine tablets, calamine lotion and rash ointment made at a government laboratory. Investigations found that the medicines were contaminated with diethylene glycol, commonly used in brake fluid and antifreeze.

Seeking to determine the scope of the mass poisoning, the government’s forensic institute analyzed 763 potential cases, concluding that 174 of them were poisonings from diethylene glycol.

The institute said there was no evidence of poisoning in 461 cases, while 62 cases were deemed to have insufficient information and 66 were described as inconclusive. Of the 174 people who ingested tainted medicine, 59 survived, the government agency said.

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.

Pascual, who estimates that more than 300 people died from poisoning and more than 100 survived, contends the official investigation was fraught with contradictions. In some cases, investigators initially recognized that a victim had taken the tainted medicine but later said the cases were inconclusive.

“There is dissatisfaction” with the investigation, said attorney Renaul Escudero, a member of the nongovernmental Alternative Legal Assistance of Panama. “There is a perception that there are many more cases.”

Lost medical files
Escudero said from 25,000 to 30,000 bottles of cough syrup allegedly contaminated with diethylene glycol were prescribed to patients, which he said would make the number of both fatal victims and survivors “much higher.”

Escudero claimed that because of mix-ups in the state health department that distributed the medicine, some case files were incomplete or lost.

The Legal Medicine institute’s chief investigator, Dr. Jose Vicente Pachar, could not be reached for comment.

In an article published Thursday, The New York Times quoted Pachar as saying that the actual number of victims was probably much higher than what the government reported, given that victims living in isolated sections of the country probably never contacted officials.

“There are many more people who died, but either they did not dare to speak up or they were people from the interior of the country who do not have the economic means to come to the capital,” said Hilda Nieto de Jaen, who says her 84-year-old mother died after taking tainted cough syrup.

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