A leaked letter shows that Zambia’s medicines regulator knew of potentially dangerous levels of anti-impotence drug Viagra in a Zambian-made energy drink a month before the contamination hit international headlines.
The letter, from the The Zambia Medicines Regulatory Authority (Zamra), reveals that the drink contained 144mg of the drug per 250ml – far in excess of the 100mg therapeutic dose.
It noted that the drug, which had been exported to other countries in the region, is contra-indicated “in many cardiac conditions”.
The drink, SX Energy Natural Power, was manufactured by Revin Zambia in the city of Ndola, north of Lusaka, and exported to other nearby countries.
The scandal first surfaced in Uganda after the national drug authority in that country confirmed in an official letter in December last year that sildenafil citrate – dispensed under the brand name Viagra – had been found in the drink.
The Ugandan media reported on January 10 that a local man had experienced a six-hour erection and profuse sweating after consuming SX Energy Natural Power.
The story was then picked up by the Zambian media. It spread rapidly across the world, even appearing in the New Zealand Herald.
However, a letter from Zamra director-general Berenice Mwale makes it clear that the regulator had tested SX Energy Natural Power and knew it was adulterated well before the story broke.
The letter was dated December 6 last year, while the story first appeared in Uganda on January 9 this year.
Addressing the head of public health in the Ndola City Council, Mwale wrote that the contamination “poses a greater health risk to unsuspecting members of the public, who are unaware of this product in the drink …”
She calls on the council to “immediately institute investigations … as this drug falls under the Food and Drugs Act, which is enforced by yourselves”.
Mwale could not be reached for comment on Zamra’s claim that the energy drink is still being tested and why it had not alerted consumers earlier.
It is also not clear why the local authority did not take action at the time, as medical experts warn that its failure to do so could have had far-reaching effects.
Side-effects from the abuse of Viagra include priapism – a painful, long-lasting erection – heart attacks and sudden hearing loss.
Experts say individuals with low blood pressure, kidney disease or who have had a recent heart attack or stroke should not take the drug or check with their doctor before using it.
A senior doctor at the Zambia Medical Association, who asked not to be named, said: “Who knows, some [recent] deaths from heart attacks could be as a result of abusing such drinks.
“It is unfortunate that the authorities decided to sit on the results when they knew about this long before the Ugandan case.”
The council’s public relations officer, Tilyenji Mwanza claimed that it was the local authority that first raised the alarm about the contamination.
“I am pretty sure the said letter is pertaining to tests that were conducted, and that was because we actually raised the alert,” Mwanza said.
Revin general manager Vikas Kapoor did not respond to Makanday requests for comment. But he told other media that his company stopped making the SX Energy Natural Power on January 8 this year and launched an internal investigation.
“We have allowed the government or any of its agencies to conduct their own investigations, but as far as we know, the drink does not contain any drug,” he is reported as saying.
Kapoor said his company had started making the energy drink last year.
The Pharmaceutical Society of Zambia (PSZ) confirmed that tests shared with the Uganda National Drug Authority had revealed the presence of sildenafil citrate.
According to the PSZ, the label claims that the drink “contains natural extracts of ginger and tongkat ali, a well-known aphrodisiac, and a testosterone booster as the main ingredients”.
The society called on Zambians to avoid the drink.
Ugandan authorities confirmed they are seizing imported supplies.
“We received notification from the [Ugandan] National Drug Authority that the energy drink was adulterated and our teams are impounding it,” the spokesperson for Uganda’s bureau of standards, Godwin Muhwezi, told AFP.
* This story was produced by the Makanday Centre for Investigative Journalism in Lusaka (www.makanday.com).