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China's Kindergarten Health Scandal Widens As More Cases Emerge

Chinese parents gather in front of the Fanglin kindergarten to protest over antiviral drugs given to their children in Jilin city, March 17 2014.

Parents in northeastern Jilin province block a road in protest as lawyers call for a change in the law.

A health scandal in which hundreds of Chinese kindergarten pupils in the northern city of Xian were given antiviral medicines without their parents' consent has widened to include schools in other parts of the country, as lawyers called for tighter regulation of medication in schools.

Last week, hundreds of furious parents clashed with riot police outside government offices in Xian, the Shaanxi provincial capital, after their local Fengyun kindergarten gave children antiviral medicines without their knowledge or consent.

The principal and the doctor at the Fengyun kindergarten were detained by police after the school was found to be giving the prescription medicine moroxydine to healthy children, official media reported.

Fengyun and Hongji Xincheng, another kindergarten in Xian, were shut down last Friday by municipal authorities, while a third kindergarten was shuttered on Saturday in the northeastern province of Jilin and its head detained a day later amid similar allegations.

Xinhua news agency reported Monday that another kindergarten in central China's Hubei Province is also being investigated after parents claimed their children were illegally fed antiviral drugs.

On Sunday, angry parents of students at Jilin's Fanglin kindergarten gathered outside the school, blocking a nearby road for around two hours in protest.

"It's not convenient for me to tell you about this, but they have stopped blocking the road now," the owner of a nearby business told RFA.

An officer who answered the phone at the nearby Gaoxin district police department declined to comment on the incident, however.

"I don't really know about this, but the [local] police station is dealing with the case," he said.

Repeated calls to the Fanglin kindergarten rang unanswered during office hours on Monday.

Details of kindergarten's operations sought

Meanwhile, a Hongji Xincheng parent surnamed Zhang called on the local government to release all the details of the kindergarten's operations to the public.

"They haven't made this information available to the parents, so everyone still has a lot of questions," Zhang said. "We want surveillance [cameras] inside the school, and all the teachers' files to be made available to us."

She said the authorities appeared to far to be ignoring the parents' requests, and appeared reluctant to have the scandal discussed in public.

"A lot of people's microblog accounts have been stopped, as well as our chat group, so we are communicating on WeChat," Zhang said.

"We have had a lot of phone calls from the education bureau; two or three times a day, they call," she said.

A group of lawyers on Monday called for specific and detailed regulations to protect kindergarteners from unauthorized administration of medicines.

"The rights of a large number of children have clearly been harmed in these incidents," Beijing-based lawyer Huang Yizhi told RFA's Mandarin Service.

"Kindergarten should be a place where very young children are protected, and yet they were fed medication that was extremely harmful to their health."

Shaanxi's provincial-level education and health departments have now issued an emergency order banning the unauthorized administration of prescription medicines.

But according to Huang and her fellow campaigners, more detailed language banning the practice should be written into national laws and regulations.

"These actions have violated the rights of these children to life and health," Huang said. "At the same time as this was coming to light, so did a lot of problems with the management [of these kindergartens]."

Lack of specific regulations

She said China lacks specific regulations on the administration of medicines to children, and parental consent.

"There is no effective supervisory system in place to safeguard these children's right to life and health," Huang said.

She said the group of lawyers calling for change were all concerned with the legal protection of women and children.

"Many of us are mothers, so we can empathize with the worry those parents must be feeling, that their children have been harmed in this way," Huang added.

Children given the antiviral medication have reported leg pain, nosebleeds, itchy skin and inflammation in the genital area, official media reported.

Fanglin kindergarten has four branches in Jilin city and more than 320 children, and police are investigating all of them, officials said.

Parents of those affected say their children have suffered from kidney blockages, stomach pains and swollen genitals as a result of the medication.

They have called for the results of a full investigation to be made public.

But they said local media have been warned off pursuing the story. One journalist contacted by the parents apologized to them, but declined to cover the story because of political pressure from their editors, they said.

Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.