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Execution with Danish anaesthetic 'painful'

Harvard, Berkely and Fordham experts are criticising the use of a Danish anaesthetic in executions.

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American death row prisoners risk extreme pain during their executions as a result of an anaesthetic produced by the Danish company Lundbeck, according to several US experts..

“Gruesome, painful, horrible,” says Harvard Anaesthestist and Medical Professor David Waisel.

Two states – Ohio and Oklahoma – have begun using pentobarbital for executions as stocks of a previous anaesthetic have run out, and the company that previously produced the anaesthetic used has decided to stop production.

“There is no documentation that this substance can be used to anaesthetise people like this. We don’t know the correct dose. Prisoners are not treated like human beings but like animals,” Waisel says.

Oklahoma was the first state to start using Lundbeck’s pentobarbital for an execution in December, and has used it three times. Earlier this week, Ohio also decided to use pentobarbital for future executions and Texas is also considering changing to pentobarbital.

Another expert – Prof. Ty Alper of Berkely who has specialised in studying executions using injections, says it is likely that the anaesthetic has not worked.

“There is a real danger that the prisoners have been conscious when they received the next injection, which is extremely painful,” Alper says.

A report in The Lancet in 2005, following autopsies, said that 43 percent of those studied seemed to have been conscious and therefore subjected to unnecessary suffering during their executions.

Fordham University Law Professor and Death Penalty Expert Deborah Denno says that Lundbeck has got itself into a hornet's nest.

“It means that this company will now be associated with people who die. A company that produces a substance that helps people becomes a company that kills people from one day to the next,” she says.

The Lundbeck company says that it is against the death penalty, and that the use of pentobarbital in executions is against its wishes.

“Criticism of the death penalty should be raised against those who carry them out. It has nothing to do with our product,” says Lundbeck Media Chief Anders Schroll adding there are no plans to stop production of pentobarbital to stop its use in executions.

“If we were to prevent it, then we would have to remove the product from the market. If we withdraw the product, people would end up in life-threatening situations. Doctors agree with us. There is nothing we can do,” Schroll says.

Waisal agrees that pentobarbital is important in the treatment of stroke.

“But I would wish that the company publicly and continuously and actively says: ‘This is not the desired use of our product. It perverts the product to use it in this way. The product is designed to help patients. Do not use it for executions’,” Waisal says.

Lundbeck has sent letters to the Depts. of Corrections in Ohio and Oklahoma in which the company distances itself from the use of pentobarbital for executions. The two departments have not yet received the letters and are said to have no comment on the issue.

The next pentobarbital execution is set for March 10 in Ohio when 36-year-old Johnnie Baston is to be executed for the murder in 1994 of store owner Chong Mah.

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