Prague: At least 19 people are dead and 24 others have been hospitalised after drinking cheap alcohol laced with methanol, a toxic substance used to stretch alcohol on the black market and guarantee high profits for manufacturers.
Some of those in hospital have been blinded, while others have been induced into comas in the hope that doctors can save them.
The Czech Republic announced emergency measures as the death toll from the methanol poisoning mounted, including two women aged 28 and 21. Kiosks and markets were banned from selling spirits with more than 30 per cent alcohol content and police raided outlets nationwide. At 410 sites, they found 70 cases of illegal alcohol.
Prime Minister Petr Necas called on all Czechs to refrain from drinking “any alcohol whose origin is uncertain” but authorities still fear the death toll will rise further.
Little is officially known about the culprits other than that they work in the country’s depressed north-east, a former heartland of industry under communism. The Moravian-Silesian region near the border with Poland has unemployment about 50 per cent higher than the national average of 8.3 per cent.
Of the 16 confirmed dead in the Czech Republic, eight lived in the region, two others died in neighbouring Poland and one more in Slovakia.
Senior police official Vaclav Kucera said all the poisoning cases so far are likely connected and two suspects have been arrested - one in the eastern city of Zlin and another in the north-eastern city of Havirov, where the first two fatalities were announced on September 6.
Methanol is mainly used for industrial purposes but unscrupulous criminal networks sometimes misuse it to illegally produce liquor because it’s cheap and impossible to distinguish from real drinking alcohol.
Igor Dvoracek, a doctor in the eastern city of Ostrava, said autopsies might be done on about 150 people who have died in recent weeks to see if they were also victims.
The Czech Republic is renowned for its high-quality pilsner beer and burgeoning wine industry and is the world’s biggest consumer of beer per capita. In 2011, 65 million litres of spirits were drunk in a nation of just over 10 million people.
But the methanol scandal has shone an uncomfortable light on the darker side of the alcohol industry - and the way some are struggling to deal with a recession that has blighted parts of the country far away from the wealthy tourist magnet of Prague. The export-dependent Czech economy has been contracting since the third quarter of 2011 and only the biggest optimists see a tepid return to growth of less than 1 per cent in 2013.
“People with the lowest income are looking for the cheapest alcohol and are ready to accept unknown origins,” said Vladimir Steiner, executive director of a union of spirits producers.
He estimated that 20 per cent of all the liquor in restaurants across the country is likely made on the black market.
Last year in India, a huge outbreak of methanol poisoning killed 170 people but such incidents have been rare in Europe. In Serbia, 43 people died in 1998 from illegally-made plum brandy and a man was sentenced to 12 years in jail.