Archive for Sunday, November 16, 2008

Deaths in milk scandal go uncounted

November 16, 2008


— Li Xiaokai died of kidney failure on the old wooden bed in the family farmhouse, just before dawn on a drizzly Sept. 10.

Her grandmother wrapped the 9-month-old in a wool blanket. Her father handed the body to village men for burial by a muddy creek. The doctors and family never knew why she got sick. A day later, state media reported that the type of infant formula she drank had been adulterated with an industrial chemical.

Yet the deaths of Xiaokai and at least four other babies are not included in China's official death toll from its worst food safety scare in years. The Health Ministry's count stands at only three deaths.

The stories of these uncounted babies suggest that China's tainted milk scandal has exacted a higher human toll than the government has so far acknowledged. Without an official verdict on the deaths, families worry they will be unable to bring lawsuits and refused compensation.

Nobody is suggesting large numbers of deaths are being concealed. But so many months passed before the scandal was exposed that it's likely more babies fell sick or died than figures reflect.

Beijing's apparent reluctance to admit a higher toll is reinforcing perceptions that the authoritarian government cares more about tamping down criticism than helping families. Lawyers, doctors and reporters have said privately that authorities pressured them to not play up the human cost or efforts to get compensation from the government or Sanlu, the formula maker.

"It's hard to say how the government will handle this matter," said Zhang Xinkui, a Beijing-based lawyer amassing evidence of the contamination for a possible lawsuit. "There may be many children who perhaps died from drinking Sanlu powdered milk or perhaps from a different cause. But there's no system in place to find out."

'My heart is in pain'

In the weeks since Xiaokai's death, her father and his older brother have talked to lawyers and beseeched health officials, with no result.

"My heart is in pain," said her father, Li Xiaoquan, a short, taciturn farmer with hooded eyes. From a corner of his farmhouse courtyard in central China's wheat and corn flatlands, he pulls a worn green box that once held apples and is now stuffed with empty pink wrappers of the Sanlu Infant Formula Milk Powder that Xiaokai nursed on. "We think someone, the company, should compensate us."

In coal-mining country 450 miles to the northwest, Tian Xiaowei waits for his wife to leave the newly built house before removing five small photos of a wide-eyed baby boy from a brown plastic document folder. "She breaks down when she sees them," Tian said. The photos are the only mementos left of year-old Tian Jin, who died in August.

"I want these people who poisoned the milk powder to receive the severest punishment under law. I want an explanation and I want consolation for my dead child," said Tian, a broad-shouldered apple farmer and part-time truck driver. "I feel like we could die from regret. If we knew that it was contaminated, we would never have fed him that."

Since September, when the scandal was first reported, Beijing has said that Shijiazhuang Sanlu Group Co., the dairy, knew as early as last year that its products were tainted with melamine and that company and local officials first tried to cover it up.

The government has promised free medical treatment to the 50,000 children sickened, and unspecified compensation to them and families of the dead. The Health Ministry, which is coordinating the government's response, declined to answer questions about the compensation plan and whether it was investigating deaths and illnesses not yet counted by the government.

Though melamine is not believed harmful in tiny amounts, higher concentrations produce kidney stones, which can block the ducts that carry urine from the body, and in serious cases can cause kidney failure.

All eight babies who died were diagnosed with kidney failure, according to the families, medical records or state media accounts. All also supposedly drank Sanlu infant formula or powdered milk.

The fathers of Li Xiaokai and Tian Jin both wave inch-thick sheaves of medical reports and tests from their children's stays in hospitals. Xiaokai, a twin older than her sister Xiaoyan by three minutes, was fed with Sanlu formula while the younger girl nursed on breast milk because their mother did not have enough for both, family members said.

An ultrasound examination of Xiaokai's kidneys at the Zhengzhou Children's Hospital on Aug. 21 found a stone in each kidney that was about the size of a small marble and 2 1/2 times larger than what doctors consider a critical threshold.

Tian Xiaowei, the apple farmer, sent bags of Sanlu infant formula to a government laboratory in September. The Xi'an Product Quality Supervision Institute's report, dated Oct. 8, found melamine levels of 1,748 milligrams per kilogram, more than 800 times the government-set limit.

Medical experts say kidney stones in infants are rare. Doctors in several parts of China first noticed a rise in cases in the past two years. Pediatric urologist Feng Dongchuan tried to sound an alarm, posting an item on his blog in July about a spike in cases at his hospital. Feng pinpointed infant formula as the likely cause.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.