updated 2/6/2009 2:47:15 PM ET 2009-02-06T19:47:15

Nigerian health workers hunted down errant bottles of a poisonous teething formula Friday as the government reported that 84 infants and children have now died after swallowing a syrup laced with a chemical normally found in antifreeze.

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The children were stricken with fever, convulsions, diarrhea and vomiting, and were unable to urinate after being given the My Pikin Baby Teething Mixture.

The dead ranged from 2 months to 7 years old, the Health Ministry said, adding that at least 111 children in all have been sickened since the tainted batch hit store shelves in mid-November.

“The death of any Nigerian child is a great loss to the nation,” Health Minister Babatunde Oshotimehin said in a statement. “The federal ministry of health sincerely regrets this painful incidence and sympathizes with the nation and the families.”

Health officials said in early December that 34 children had died and stores were returning stocks of the formula meant to stop teething pain.

Death toll could increase
But health workers were now pressing to collect already-purchased bottles of the sweet-tasting medicine, said Marshal Gundu, a spokesman for the Ministry of Health. He said parents of the affected children were being interviewed and an epidemiological survey was under way.

Health officials said they don’t know how many bottles of the bad formula were made or remain in circulation, so it was not clear if the death toll could rise further.

Nigeria is a vast, chaotic country of 140 million people, and bottles of the teething formula could easily go undiscovered by authorities. Nigeria also has a long history of poor enforcement of its own regulations, with corruption rampant among police and government officials.

It was unclear if any of the teething formula had been shipped overseas, but most products made in Nigeria are designed for domestic sale in Africa’s largest market.

Many bottles of the paracetemol-based formula were found to have a high concentration of diethylene glycol, a chemical commonly found in antifreeze and brake fluid and sometimes used illegally as a cheaper alternative to glycerin, which thickens toothpaste. Exposure can cause kidney and liver damage and may be fatal.

An official with manufacturer Barewa Pharmaceuticals Ltd. apparently procured diethylene glycol from an unregistered chemical dealer in a sprawling slum near the main dump in Lagos, the National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control has said.

Arrests made
Several officials of the Lagos-based pharmaceutical maker are under arrest, along with several other suspects accused of helping provide the poisonous ingredient. Gundu said no charges had been officially lodged against the suspects.

A phone number listed for the company was not working Friday, and officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Health officials said earlier that Barewa Pharmaceuticals appears to have been told it was purchasing propylene glycol, a normal ingredient in the teething formula. They said the pharmaceutical company had always bought that ingredient through approved channels before, but had turned to a new source for the ingredient used in the tainted batch.

The food and drug agency said the first sickened child was taken for treatment on Nov. 19 in Nigeria’s far northern region. Similar cases turned up in subsequent days in Nigeria’s densely populated southwest, and investigators isolated the product as the culprit.

Nigeria has been plagued by tainted, fake or untested drugs since it gained independence from Britain in 1960. About 200 babies died in 1990 under similar circumstances, also from diethylene glycol.

The food and drug administration, however, has drawn plaudits from Nigerians in recent years for having cut down on counterfeit or dangerous medicines.

Diethylene glycol has also been implicated in poisoning cases around the world, including in Panama, where at least 116 people died in 2006 after taking contaminated cough syrup, antihistamine tablets, calamine lotion and rash ointment made at a government laboratory.

The Nigerian teething formula is the only the latest poisoning case to kill the very young.

In China, hundreds of thousands of children fell sick last year and six died after drinking milk tainted with melamine. A court handed down two death penalties and long prison terms for 19 other defendants in the scandal.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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