Authorities in the western Chinese city of Lanzhou have shuttered yet another kindergarten after parents took to the streets in protest amid a widening scandal over the medication of very young children, parent protesters said on Wednesday.
Dozens of parents of children at the privately owned Litian Kindergarten in Lanzhou's Qilihe district blocked a major road outside the school late on Tuesday, saying that their children had suffered stomachaches, muscular pains, and dizziness after being dosed with an antiviral medication.
"There were at least 50 or 60 of them, as well as police—the kind with helmets," an eyewitness told RFA's Mandarin Service on Wednesday. "It [started] at about 9:00 p.m."
"I totally understand why they're angry," the Qilihe resident said. "I think they have good reason to be."
Litian's principal Nie Aiqin "admitted" that the kindergarten gave children the antiviral drug Ribavirin twice after a child was found to have hand, foot, and mouth disease in October 2013, the official Xinhua news agency reported on Tuesday.
Nie said the kindergarten had taken a delivery of 50 boxes of Ribavirin last October and administered the drugs to the kindergarten's 270 pupils twice, each for three days at a time, it said.
Nie's admission sparked angry protests by parents, who suspect the school isn't revealing the whole truth.
Last week, China ordered a nationwide probe into safety at its kindergartens amid growing public outrage at the secret medication of pupils by some institutions and a slew of poisonings that left at least two children dead.
Local governments have been ordered to inspect schools, particularly kindergartens, to check if they are illegally administering any medicine, according to an announcement from the health ministry.
Now, the Litian parents are demanding a government investigation into their kindergarten's practices, as administering Ribavirin without a prescription is illegal in China, Xinhua said.
Local officials said they have set up a taskforce to investigate the case and punish those responsible.
At least six kindergartens in three provinces are already under investigation for giving toddlers a prescription-only drug to "prevent viral infections," according to official media reports.
Some parents in Xi'an said they had identified the drug given to their children as moroxydine hydrochloride.
Chinese kindergartens are paid based on attendance and some had been trying to boost income by reducing absence through sickness, official media reported.
But rumors are rife among parents of victims that their children had been subjected to some sort of clinical trial without their consent, according to lawyers representing some of the victims' families.
Campaign to change law
Beijing-based rights lawyer Wang Yu, who has campaigned for a change in the law to forbid the administration of medicines in schools without parental consent, said the practice now appeared to be far more widespread than previously thought.
"It's not just in one province, or one kindergarten, that we are seeing these problems, and this should elicit the strongest concern from government," Wang said.
"This is bound to be complicated, and vested interests are sure to be involved," she said.
She said her campaign group planned to send out a group of lawyers to some of the affected kindergartens to investigate further.
"The education authorities should be taking this very seriously," Wang said. "Children are the future of our country."
Chinese parents are still reeling for a series of other threats to child safety, including stabbing attacks by mentally ill assailants and sexual abuse by teachers.
Last year, authorities jailed a 62-year-old former teacher for molesting seven second-grade girls and infecting six of them with sexually transmitted diseases.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.