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Mystery of drugged babies deepens after German probe blunder

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Frankfurt am Main (AFP)

Fresh questions emerged Tuesday in the case of five babies who were drugged at a German hospital, after police said they made "a mistake" in arresting a nurse for attempted manslaughter.

The five babies, aged between one day and five weeks at the time, all survived the attempt to drug them with morphine on December 20 and are not expected to suffer lasting harm.

The nurse was detained Wednesday after investigators searching her locker at Ulm University Hospital discovered a feeding syringe containing breast milk and traces of what initial testing determined was morphine.

But Ulm prosecutor Christof Lehr told reporters that the first test was now known to be wrong, after further analysis showed the syringe did not contain morphine after all.

The nurse was released from custody on Sunday, with an apology from the prosecutor.

She remains a suspect in the case, however, along with two doctors and three other nurses who were on duty the night of the incident.

"There remains an initial suspicion against these six people because of their close proximity to the infants at the time of the act," Michael Bischofberger, a spokesman for the Ulm prosecutor's office, told AFP.

The investigation is continuing "in all directions", he said, adding that more suspects could be involved.

The six employees are currently barred from working at the hospital in southern Germany.

- Lab contamination -

The decision to arrest the nurse based on a preliminary test of the liquid in the syringe "was in hindsight a mistake", said Ralf Michelfelder, head of the state police of Baden-Wuerttemberg, at a press conference.

The error became clear after the mother whose breast milk was in the syringe volunteered to give a control sample, which also inexplicably tested positive for the heavy painkiller.

The lab in Baden-Wuerttemberg that carried out the analysis then discovered it was their own solvent used in the tests that had been contaminated with a tiny amount of morphine, for reasons that are still unclear.

Follow-up tests by a lab in the neighbouring state of Bavaria confirmed that neither the syringe nor the new sample contained any morphine.

"I'm very sorry for the woman in question," Lehr said. But given the urgent need to keep infants at the hospital safe, he said he had had to make a quick decision.

It is common for premature and newborn babies who are too weak to drink from a bottle to be fed orally through a syringe.

But the prosecutor's spokesman told AFP it was "unusual" for a syringe filled with breast milk to be stored in a locker.

- 'Inconsistencies' -

The December 20 incident saw all five babies, some of them born prematurely, develop breathing problems at roughly the same time in the same hospital room.

It was only thanks to swift action taken by staff that their lives were saved, Ulm University Hospital said.

The hospital initially suspected the infants had caught an infection, but that was ruled out by urine tests.

The tests did however show traces of morphine -- although none of the infants were due to receive the drug at the time.

The hospital notified the police the following day.

Often administered to treat severe pain, morphine is also used to treat withdrawal symptoms in babies born to drug-addicted mothers.

An overdose can lead to life-threatening respiratory failure.

Use of morphine is strictly regulated in German hospitals and a log is kept of when it is administered and to which patients.

The hospital in Ulm has admitted finding "some inconsistencies" in the logs.

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