June 14, 2010

In northwestern Nigeria, MSF and the Nigerian health authorities have started treating 50 children who are sick with lead poisoning. The poisoning is caused by local mining practices and as many  as 10,000 people may be affected. 



Lauren Cooney

"...There were incredibly high levels of lead in the blood of the children..." (1:14)

In northwestern Nigeria, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the Nigerian health authorities have started treating 50 children who are sick with lead poisoning. The poisoning, caused by local mining practices, has been confirmed in two villages. Four other villages are also suspected of being contaminated, with as many as 10,000 people affected.  

“This is an unprecedented and tragic situation—in one village, 30 percent of the children under five have died in the past year,” said Lauren Cooney, emergency coordinator for MSF in Nigeria. “A continued, coordinated, large-scale emergency response is needed to ensure that the contaminated villages are cleaned up, that the most vulnerable receive urgent treatment, and that effective health education messages are passed on to prevent re-contamination of living areas.”

The lead poisoning is a consequence of gold extraction from lead-containing ore. The processing of the ore involves crushing and drying. The crushing causes dust which contains large amounts of lead. Drying often takes place inside the huts of villagers, which increases the risk of lead poisoning in children.

The poisoning affects all of the population exposed to the dust caused by the crushing of the rocks, and its subsequent leaching into water wells and soil. However, children younger than five years old are most vulnerable to the risks of lead poisoning due to low body weight, and because they are at crucial stage of growth and brain development. Lead poisoning can cause a loss of appetite, anaemia, weakness, and renal damage. More serious consequences are the loss of consciousness, convulsions, and, eventually, death.

In collaboration with local health authorities, MSF set up a treatment center at a safe distance from the contaminated zone. By early June, 50 children were admitted for treatment. Another 15 to 20 children are expected to be admitted every other day as MSF aims to care  for at least 100 children in the facility. Breastfeeding mothers are also receiving treatment as lead can be passed to the child through breast milk. Treatment is provided with an oral drug that binds the heavy metal in the patient’s blood, which is then excreted in the urine. The treatment takes 28 days but in extreme cases two or more rounds may be necessary.

MSF is working on setting up a second treatment center to be able to care for children from other affected villages. Furthermore, the teams are working on an information campaign to inform the population of the dangers of lead poisoning brought about through gold extraction and the treatment program that MSF offers. The information campaign is especially important to prevent people from being poisoned again.