Sunday, December 12, 2010

Pain killer that’s a real killer

A woman is fighting for her life after taking pain-relieving pills from Malaysia that may be linked to her liver failure.

K. H. Leong, 51, needs a liver transplant within the next few days or she may die.

Her husband, daughter, seven siblings and many nieces and nephews all volunteered to give her a part of their liver, but none was found to be a suitable donor.

Doctors at the National University Hospital (NUH) told the family that Leong has only a “short window” left to get a transplant.The Health Sciences Authority told The Straits Times that it received a report from the NUH on Nov 22 on this case. It is now trying to determine if the liver failure “was directly caused by the product”.

Its spokesman added that the product, which claims to treat joint pain, is not sold here.Leong, who works in public relations in a multinational company, had been suffering from acute pain in both her wrists for some time. An operation on both wrists in August last year failed to relieve her of the pain.

In November last year, a friend introduced her to the pills from Malaysia. The pills – round, black balls about 5mm in diameter – came in plastic bags with Chinese words claiming to be “homemade from secret ingredients of herbs”. It recommended that adults take four pills a day and children take half that dose.

They were priced at RM18 for about a month’s supply. She took them till July this year. The pills seemed to cure her pain. But in August, an annual health check found problems with her liver. The doctor told her to stop taking the pills and referred her to a specialist.

The private specialist she consulted spent five weeks testing her for hepatitis – one virus at a time – as it is a common cause of liver failure. The tests were negative. Leong’s only child, bank executive K. Y. Pang, 27, said: “We didn’t know it was that bad. We wasted so much time.”

She had been worried about her mother taking the Chinese medicine. “I asked her if she was sure it was safe. She told me that Chinese medicine has no side effects, and that they worked.”

The specialist put Leong on steroids, and she appeared to improve initially. But after a week, he said that her liver was 80% damaged. She was also tired and jaundiced. He then suggested that she check into NUH as a liver transplant was clearly needed.

On Nov 10, doctors at NUH confirmed that she had acute liver failure and put her on the waiting list for a liver from a dead person. Her extended family came forward to volunteer part of their livers. But only her four sisters and one niece had the same blood type: O+. One of her sisters, aged 49, appeared an ideal match at first. Said her sister Julia, a property agent: “I was happy to donate. After all, she’s my sister.”

But during the detailed screening that precedes such donations, doctors found a cyst in her kidney that could be cancerous and might have affected her liver too. She suggested removing the cyst first, then donating her liver, but doctors said she would need months to recover from such a major operation.

The other sisters were underweight and not suitable donors. Pang said Leong does not know how serious her condition is. The HSA spokesman has urged the public not to buy health products from dubious sources.

She added: “Consumers are advised to be wary of products that promise quick cures of serious conditions with claims that sound too good to be true.” In 2002, slimming pills under the name Slim 10 took the life of one woman, and actress Andrea D’Cruz survived only after getting a liver transplant

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