Lead Poisoning in Zamfara state, Nigeria

July 15, 2010

Lead Poisoning in Zamfara state, Nigeria

Earlier this year, cases of lead poisoning of children and adults were confirmed in villages in Zamfara state, northwestern Nigeria. Since early June, Médecins Sans Frontières, in collaboration with the State Ministry of Health has been providing emergency treatment for children under 5 years old, as they are the most vulnerable to poisoning. The lead poisoning is a consequence of local villagers and their families practicing small-scale gold extraction from lead-containing ore. The processing of the ore involves crushing and drying, often inside family huts, resulting in soil contamination in the village compounds and houses, exposing children to the risk of lead poisoning.

From the surveys undertaken so far by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), the Ministry of Health, WHO and MSF, it is estimated that the entire population of seven contaminated villages may now be affected: approximately 10,000 individuals, of which 2,000 children under 5 years of age are in acute danger of death or severe illness. An acute high level of lead poisoning is fatal in young children. It can also kill older children and adults, and may result in brain damage, infertility, kidney failure, miscarriages/still births and other major health problems.

MSF is currently providing chelation therapy for the most vulnerable patients from two of the affected villages. One hundred children and 28 breast-feeding mothers in two specially established units within the general hospitals of Bukkuyum and Anka in Zamfara state are receiving treatment. Additionally more than 40 children have already been treated and discharged from these centers. Initial results for the first round of treatment have been encouraging, but much more work remains to be done.

“Medical treatment is only part of the solution that MSF can provide,” explains MSF Head of mission Gautam Chatterjee, “the loss of livelihood of these families must also be addressed by the authorities, or else people may continue to risk the health of their families in order to make a living.”

Discharged patients must go back to a home environment that is free of lead poisoning or they risk renewed contamination. For this reason, the cleaning up of contaminated sites is key to any treatment activities. The environmental organisation Terra-graphics/ Blacksmith Foundation, is working with the State and local authorities to decontaminate Yargalma and Dareta villages, so that the chelation therapy provided to patients is not meaningless and people do not immediately become sick again.

An important component to ensuring that children receive the treatment is through social mobilization and awareness activities. All members of the community need to have information on the contamination, treatment and remediation responses, including how to prevent re-contamination. MSF has been working with the local authorities and village leaders in outreach efforts to encourage families to bring their children for treatment.

Faced with a crisis of this severity, MSF plans to expand treatment to include children under 5 years old, who live in five other villages that have also been contaminated. However this will only be possible if the cleaning up or remediation of these villages is also done.

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