CSI: Kowloon? Team wins credit for poisons detective work

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 April, 2008, 12:00am

Much like crime scene investigators, a Kowloon hospital team's duty is to solve the puzzle of poisoning cases.

And one recent case has highlighted the work of the Hospital Authority's toxicology reference laboratory team at Princess Margaret Hospital as a public health gatekeeper. 'We act like detectives and try to find out if a patient is poisoned, and what has poisoned him,' the centre's consultant chemical pathologist, Tony Mak Wing-lai, said.

From December last year to January this year, a number of middle-aged and elderly men had been admitted to public hospitals with abnormally low blood sugar, Dr Mak said. None of the patients were diabetics and they denied having taken any drugs, but tests revealed that they had glibenclamide, a treatment for diabetes, in their bodies.

The team's doctors had no clue about the cause of their illnesses, while more men with low blood sugar were being admitted to hospitals. But a breakthrough was made when a man, 44, was admitted to United Christian Hospital with similar symptoms on January 25.

He told doctors and the poisons team that he had taken unregistered virility pills, without any packaging or labelling. Tests confirmed he had glibenclamide and the impotence drug sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra, in his system, Dr Mak said.

The team immediately called some of the previous patients to tactfully ask them again whether they had taken any drugs and all admitted having taken unregistered impotence pills. Their blood samples were retested for sildenafil, he said.

After a night's work of phone calls and testing, the team recommended that the Department of Health issue a warning for consumers not to take unregistered impotence drugs.

From December last year to the middle of this month, 44 patients were admitted to hospitals after taking unregistered impotence pills and two of them had died, he said. 'If we had not spotted the problem, there would have been more victims.'

Albert Chan Yan-wo, another consultant chemical pathologist at the laboratory and the Kowloon West Cluster chemical pathology services director, said: 'Many Hongkongers are unaware of drug safety. Some still take unregistered drugs despite scores of media reports warning about the risks. We only live once ... How can we take unlabelled pills when we don't even know what they contain? It is so silly.'

The 20-member team made up of doctors, scientists and medical laboratory technicians was set up at the hospital in March 2004 to handle difficult poisoning cases referred by any public or private hospital.

Its work has earned the team a Hospital Authority award for outstanding performance, which was given to six individuals and seven teams this year. Recipients will receive their awards on May 6.