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Medication given to 21 polo horses that died in Florida was mixed incorrectly, pharmacy says

April 23, 2009 |  1:59 pm

Veterinarian Scott Swerdlin talks to reporters April 20, 2009 about having to respond to the International Polo Club, where 21 polo ponies from the Venezuelan-based Lechuza Caracas team died mysteriously.

The 21 polo horses that died under mysterious circumstances at the U.S. Open Polo Championship tournament in Florida had all been given the same supplement, a specially-mixed compound made to replicate a medication called Biodyl that is not approved for use in the U.S. 

Today, the Florida pharmacy that mixed the compound announced the results of an internal review, during which it was discovered that "the strength of an ingredient in the medication was incorrect."  The announcement, released in a prepared statement, did not specify the ingredient, although Biodyl only contains four: vitamin B12, selenium, potassium and magnesium.  From the Associated Press:

[Venezuela's Lechuza Caracas polo team] also issued a statement to AP acknowledging that a Florida veterinarian wrote the prescription for the pharmacy to create a compound similar to Biodyl, a French-made supplement that includes vitamins and minerals and is not approved for use in the United States.

"Only horses treated with the compound became sick and died within three hours of treatment," Lechuza said in the statement. "Other horses that were not treated remain healthy and normal."

Juan Martín Nero, a Lechuza player, told an Argentine newspaper that the 21 horses that died Sunday and Monday were given Biodyl on a weekly basis.  The medication, which is legal in Venezuela, is used to help animals bounce back from exhaustion.  "It's a recovery drug and helps the horses recover from strenuous exercise," Dr. Rob Boswell told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.  "It's used to help these horses, not make them super-horses."

Franck's Pharmacy in Ocala, Fla. Initial necropsies on the 21 horses did not determine a specific cause of death, but did find internal bleeding, including bleeding in the lungs.  Results of further blood and tissue tests are pending.

Franck's Pharmacy, the Ocala, Fla. retail and compounding pharmacy at the heart of the investigation, is reportedly a well-known and longstanding pharmacy used by veterinarians across the U.S.  From the Sun-Sentinel:

"This isn't some backyard kind of place," he said. "Paul [Franck] has a very nice, clean facility. He's one of the biggest in the country."

The pharmacy's website bills itself as the premier compounding pharmacy "providing physicians and veterinarians with medications in customized dosage forms."

Despite the pharmacy's admission,  Schachter [Dr. Ben Schachter, a local veterinarian] said he will continue to use them, citing 25 years of impeccable service and products.

"I've never so much as put a bump on a horse with one of his products," he said. "I'm truly in disbelief. I've got to hear it from him. I find his work above and beyond reproach. I'm in absolute shock."

It has no prior record of disciplinary action from the Florida Department of Health, but the legality of mixing a substitute compound for Biodyl is in doubt.  It's not clear if Franck's Pharmacy broke the law by supplying Lechuza with the medication, according to the Associated Press. 

Further, it's possible that Lechuza could press its own charges against the pharmacy.  "I think you have a case against them for negligence, but it's all speculation about whether the team would sue," Robin Trupp, a south Florida attorney who handles many cases involving horses, told the Sun-Sentinel. "You don't know if the pharmacy might have a contract with the owner saying they're not liable for anything. If there's no contractual limitation and the pharmacy mixed it improperly, it appears there's liability there."

Reportedly, both Lechuza and Franck's Pharmacy are cooperating fully with authorities investigating the horses' deaths.

--Lindsay Barnett

Top photo: Veterinarian Scott Swerdlin talks to reporters Monday  about having to respond to the International Polo Club, where 21 polo ponies from the Venezuelan-based Lechuza Caracas team died.   Credit: Joe Raedle / Getty Images.

Bottom photo: Franck's Compounding Lab in Ocala, Fla. Credit: Doug Engle / Associated Press

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