In the satire Jaane bhi do yaaro, actor Om Puri quips of another character in the film, after a new bridge collapses, “hum cement mein ret milate hai, woh toh ret mein cement milata hain…” (we mix sand in cement, he mixes cement in sand).

This uncomfortably amusing but thought-provoking comment that holds a mirror to corrupt practices in society, came to mind in an entirely different context — while following-up on action taken by Health authorities on allegedly errant drugmakers.

There is no doubt that action should be taken against makers of substandard and spurious products, in the interest of patients in the country and outside. But there’s also a need to give patients/consumers more information on these products and their producers.

It’s been about two weeks since Health Ministry sources spoke of action taken against some drugmakers, with 18 licenses of pharmaceutical companies being cancelled. The Centre had inspected 76 companies and 26 were issued show-cause notices, and three product permissions were cancelled, said reports.

Coming against the backdrop of international reports from Gambia and Uzbekistan, for instance, potentially linking deaths to cough-syrups made in India — the latest action from the Centre couldn’t have come sooner. It sends the right signal on zero-tolerance to drug products and manufacturing practices that are below par.

Follow-up action

Health authorities need to now follow-up their welcome action with addressing consumer concerns with a publicly available communication. That is the practice adopted by reputed international drug regulators, when they approve or discontinue a product or take action against a manufacturer.

In the interest of public health, it is important to know how bad the transgressions were. Or going back to the cult film’s words, was it like mixing sand in cement or cement in truckloads of sand? On seeing reports splashed across multiple media on the Health Ministry’s action against spurious drug makers — it’s natural for consumers to ask questions. Who are these drugmakers; is there a possibility we may have consumed these low-quality products or have they been recalled? Have the drugmakers faced action for supplying non-standard quality products, or for shoddy records and data-keeping or was there little or no active pharmaceutical ingredient in the final medicinal product?

Initial reports said most of these manufacturers were in Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand. But a broad search of multiple Health authorities’ and regulatory sites, as a citizen, threw up no details. In fact, some of them require citizen-queries to give details, down to the district-level.

Accessible information

While that may help narrow a search, it defeats the purpose for a patient in Tamil Nadu, for example, seeking cancellation details in Himachal or vice-versa. Worse, the information may just be tucked away under some obscure subheading on one of the websites. But that’s the point — access to information should not be so difficult.

Contrast this with seeking regulatory information in some developed markets on recalled eye-drops; infant food shortage and why it happened; or vaccine side-effects, for example. The information pops up on a simple online search.

Health related data is in need of a huge dose of transparency, with simply explained information. Citizens should not have to spend hours searching health-linked websites, down to the precise State and district, to know if their medicine is safe.