Health workers have set up emergency treatment centres in northern Nigeria for scores of children suffering from lead poisoning and are racing to contain contamination that has already killed more than 160 people.
High levels of lead have contaminated water supplies in at least six villages in Zamfara state, close to where residents were illegally mining for gold. More than 350 cases have been reported over the past few months and 111 of the dead are children, many aged under five.
Nigeria has asked for help from international agencies, including the World Health Organisation, the United States Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and New York-based anti-pollution consultancy the Blacksmith Institute.
The Dutch arm of aid agency Médecins sans Frontières, which works in northern Nigeria, has brought in special drugs to treat villagers found with high levels of lead in their blood.
Dr Nasir Sani-Gwarzo, one of the officials coordinating the emergency response, said villages had been screened and patients were being taken to treatment centres away from the exposure zone where they would be kept for 28 days.
“They have been able to characterise the epidemic in terms of who is affected, where is the most affected and where is the source of the problem,” Sani-Gwarzo told Reuters.
He said aid agencies, Zamfara’s local government and the federal ministry of health were involved in a multipronged effort to treat patients, isolate the contamination, clean up homes and educate the local population before heavy rains next month, which risk spreading the pollution further.
No new cases
Zamfara state government said it had released more than 240-million naira ($1,6-million) to help with the operation.
“For the last week or so, we have had no new cases. The challenge now is to treat the people,” Dr Henry Akpan, the federal health ministry’s chief epidemiologist, told Reuters.
The villages affected, including Dareta and Giadanbuzu, are largely made of mud-brick buildings and lie in the poor, arid Sahel region on the southern fringe of the Sahara, where many people work as miners and subsistence farmers.
Many victims died after coming into contact with tools, soil and water contaminated with large concentrations of lead.
Too much lead can damage parts of the body including the nervous and reproductive systems and the kidneys. Lead is especially harmful to young children and pregnant women.
Villagers had initially thought the high rates of infant mortality were caused by malaria.
Sani-Gwarzo said health workers were training local villagers to manage the clean-up themselves and were translating educational materials into the local Hausa language to try inform people and prevent a recurrence.
“What gets me a little worried is the fact that this is linked to human behaviour that has economic benefits. We need to educate the population very well to be able to modify their behaviour,” he said. — Reuters