Investigations into the dosing of Taiwanese preschoolers have caused widespread alarm on the island.
Teachers at a kindergarten in New Taipei City have been accused of using cough syrups containing phenobarbital and benzodiazepines to sedate students. The police have been investigating for weeks and say it is unclear why the syrups were given to minors. However, the scandal has prompted family demonstrations outside of government buildings.
On Sunday, hundreds of people gathered in New Taipei City to demand greater transparency in the investigation being conducted by the police. Many of the attendees were critical of the government for their failure to disclose information to the general public.
On Monday, it was discovered that there was a separate incident that involved a medical clinic in the city of Kaohsiung, which is located on the opposite end of the island. Four doctors were found guilty of misconduct and improper use of phenobarbital on twenty minors by the local health department. They were ordered to cease practice for six months and fined 1.4 million Taiwanese dollars (£35,910, $44,121).
In response to growing public concern, the Taipei City Hospital has also begun offering free blood tests in order to detect residues of sedatives in preschoolers. Parents at a private preschool in New Taipei City accused staff of administering their children "unknown drugs" in May, when the scandal first surfaced.
Mike, the father of a five-year-old, told sources that parents observed what appeared to be withdrawal symptoms in their children during the February Lunar New Year holiday. "Some parents discovered that their children had become irritable, restless, screamed while sleeping, and even complained of leg cramps," he said.
After conversing with the children, the parents discovered that their teachers had administered an "unknown concoction." Police received complaints in April and May. Following additional complaints from parents in June, local authorities conducted an investigation and discovered at least eight children with traces of psychoactive substances such as phenobarbital and benzodiazepines.
The Kid Castle Educational Institute franchise kindergarten at the center of the controversy was ordered to close on June 12. The company's directors have been fined 150,000 Taiwanese dollars (£3,800 or $4,872). The principal and five instructors were detained and interrogated by police, but they have since been released on bail. A criminal investigation is currently ongoing.
Local media reported that school staff stated that parents had agreed to a list of school-provided medications, but in response, some parents questioned the school's medication use. Local sources in Taiwan were told by a Taiwanese pharmacist that although it is uncommon, some cough medicine and stomach treatment do contain phenobarbital.
Drugs that include phenobarbital are notoriously difficult to get and are typically administered to patients suffering from epilepsy or as an anesthetic during surgical procedures. The most prevalent usage for the depressive medication class known as benzodiazepines is in the treatment of extreme anxiety.
The medications have a strong potential for addiction, and taking too much of them can cause sleepiness as well as shortness of breath.