Death toll from poisonous liquor rises to 46 in Kenya

A regional Kenyan hospital overwhelmed at the weekend with patients made violently ill by adulterated moonshine appealed for assistance on Monday as the death toll from the poisonous brew hit 46.

Simon Mueke, superintendant of the Machakos District hospital southwest of Nairobi, said his small facility was stretched to the limit and could barely cope with the influx of sick drinkers.

“I am writing a letter to the ministry of health to appeal for linen and other medical equipment,” he said by phone from the hospital, about 60km outside the capital.

“We urgently need room heaters, because it is the cold season, the chilliness has contributed to the rapid death of some patients,” Mueke said, adding that Sunday’s death toll of 45 had climbed by one overnight.

Forty-eight people who drank the liquor for 10 US cents a glass at a popular drinks stall outside Machakos on Friday night are still hospitalised and at least 11 of them have gone “completely or partially blind,” he said.

Medical reports have suggested the brew may have been laced with methanol, a toxic chemical used as an industrial solvent or antifreeze, to make it more potent.

In recent years, methanol has been blamed for hundreds of deaths in the impoverished East African nation where many poorer Kenyans drink cheap gins, and chang’aa, usually distilled from fermented maize or sorghum flour.

Chang’aa, the most popular low-cost intoxicant, is produced all over the country and bootleggers sometimes add industrial alcohol to make it stronger.

Although the unlicensed manufacture, distribution and sale of alcohol is illegal in Kenya, the chang’aa trade is widespread because it offers a much cheaper way of getting drunk than highly taxed legal beers and spirits.

In 2000, at least 134 people died and dozens went blind while hundreds of others were admitted to hospital after drinking poisonous alcohol in the slums of Nairobi.

Several locally distilled cheap liquors were banned in 1998 but the chang’aa trade is believed to be so lucrative that even frequent police raids on breweries and arrests of slum bootleggers have failed to curb it.

In 1996, Kenya Breweries launched a low-priced unmalted beer known as Citizen to discourage people from drinking unwholesome alcohol.

But the cost of the beer, 65 shillings (85 US cents, 75 euro cents) for a half-litre bottle, is still prohibitive for the majority of Kenyans, where per capita annual income is estimated at $280, and where half of the population of 32-million lives in absolute poverty.

Kenyan brewers, who claim that duties on beer are exorbitant, have in the past appealed to the government to lower duties so as to improve sales and lure people away from dangerous alcohols. - Sapa-AFP

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