Pharma giant Hospira fails to act on paralysis drug responsible for ‘torturous’ executions

October 31, 2011

Global pharmaceutical firm, Hospira, is now the only company supplying US execution chambers with the paralysis drug used in lethal injections. Pancuronium bromide is the second drug in the lethal injection ‘cocktail’ and serves to paralyse the prisoner before the lethal dose of potassium chloride is administered. Israeli manufacturer, Teva, recently became the latest manufacturer to exit the execution drug trade, leaving Hospira solely responsible for the US supply of the drug. According to expert anaesthesiologist, Dr. Mark Heath, Pancuronium bromide serves no medical purpose in the lethal injection procedure, but rather a ‘cosmetic’ purpose, serving to mask any possible suffering of the inmate. If not properly anesthetised by the first drug in the cocktail, a prisoner will be paralysed by the pancuronium bromide, unable to move, speak or even motion that something has gone wrong. Dr. Heath attests ‘there is no dispute that the asphyxiation caused by pancuronium and the caustic burning sensation caused by potassium would be agonizing in the absence of adequate anesthesia’.Earlier this month, legal action charity Reprieve wrote to Hospira to draw their attention to the issue. They offered to assist Hospira in creating a new distribution system which would allow the company to control who is able to use their product and for what purpose. Reprieve recently worked successfully with Danish manufacturer Lundbeck to restrict the distribution of pentobarbital, a product which was also being used in executions. Lundbeck’s effective action means that US prisons are now blocked from buying their drugs for use in executions. Hospira, a company which has long stated its opposition to the use of its drugs in executions, could take similar steps to prevent such abuse. However, they have not replied to Reprieve’s letter and offer of assistance. On average, it takes an anaesthesiologist 5,110 days’ training before he is fully qualified to administer anaesthesia in hospitals; prison wardens are given an average of 2.5 days’ training before they are deemed qualified to administer anaesthesia in lethal injection procedures. Little surprise that executions are so frequently ‘botched’. If the first drug, the anaesthetic, is not properly administered, the prisoner remains conscious as the second and third drugs are injected, causing ‘agonizing pain’. The phenomenon has been likened to that of ‘anaesthesia awareness’ in surgery. Victims of anaesthesia awareness testify that the pain and terror is ‘cruel beyond description’.  Reprieve investigator Maya Foa said: “Hospira’s silence on this issue is deeply disturbing. The potential for torture associated with this illegitimate use of their drugs is immense. Indeed, the American Veterinary Association has expressly condemned the use of paralytic agents in animal euthanasia. That prisoners are treated worse than animals by the state is scandalous; that healthcare provider Hospira should be complicit in this is nothing short of disgraceful.”ENDSNotes to editors1. For further information, please contact Donald Campbell in Reprieve’s press office on +44 (0) 207 427 1082 / +44 (0) 7791 755 4152. Dr Mark Heath’s affidavit on the effects of ineffective anesthesia in lethal injection can be found on Reprieve’s website. His descrption of the ‘cosmetic’ nature of the use of pancuronium bromide can be found here: Reprieve, a legal action charity, uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. Reprieve investigates, litigates and educates, working on the frontline, to provide legal support to prisoners unable to pay for it themselves. Reprieve promotes the rule of law around the world, securing each person’s right to a fair trial and saving lives.  Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve and has spent 25 years working on behalf of people facing the death penalty in the USA.Reprieve’s current casework involves representing 15 prisoners in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, assisting over 70 prisoners facing the death penalty around the world, and conducting ongoing investigations into the rendition and the secret detention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’ 

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