An Italian drugs supplier bribed doctors and pharmacists across the country to issue bogus prescriptions in return for cash and sex with Colombian prostitutes, it has emerged.

Forty four people, including medics, pharmacists and drugs supply staff across south and central Italy have been held, some under house arrest, in connection with the 10 million euro scam, which is the latest blow to the country's scandal-hit health sector.

The health staff are believed to have pocketed 5% of the prescriptions' cost, in return for inflating the suppliers' bill to the Italian health service. According to La Repubblica newspaper, representatives of "various pharmaceutical companies" were also involved in the scam, but it did not elaborate on what role they played.

Earlier this year PharmaTimes reported how officials in Italy's medicines regulatory agency Aifa (the Italian Agency for Pharmaceuticals), drugs company lobbyists had been arrested after police found evidence that money had changed hands in return for the falsification of clinical data required for drug licences.

The latest investigations revealed a "picture of grave and very precise accusations, which are particularly worrying given the number of professionals involved," said a senior investigator in the case.

One drug supplier, Farmaceutici Ts, is said to be at the centre of police investigations. Wire-taps revealed crooked medics involved in the scandal ringing the drug supplier to express their gratitude for the cash – and, according to Italian newspapers, their satisfaction with the live entertainment.

As if to add an element of farce to events, it emerged that many of the false prescriptions were made out in the names of an unsuspecting group of nuns at a covent near Rome. And in a typically Italian twist, it emerged that the ladies for hire were procured by a TV celebrity.

Commenting on events, the junior Italian health minister Ferruccio Fazio said the doctors and pharmacists involved would have their licences suspended. But he said they represented only a small minority of practising health professionals in Italy.

"We're talking about only around 50 individuals. In the whole sector there are over 100,000," he said.