Dallas-based nurse Kaci Hickox began working with MSF in 2007. Last March, she was sent to Nigeria to be the Doctors Without Border/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) emergency medical team leader following outbreaks of measles and meningitis. Two months later, however, she found herself in the middle of the organization’s first-ever response to lead poisoning and an international effort to assist the Nigerian authorities that came to include the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
I arrived in Nigeria at the height of the measles epidemic, at a time when our teams were seeing 2,000 new cases in children every week. MSF was working in four states in the north—Zamfara, Kebbie, Sokoto, and Niger—and it was my job to oversee case management and surveillance.
Case management means, basically, treating patients. I had to make sure the staff running our mobile and fixed clinics understood the medical protocols and had the right drugs, as well as the right assessment techniques to determine when children needed inpatient care.
Surveillance means sending teams to remote villages to look for and treat new cases. It was primarily measles that we were finding because the outbreak was so massive, though we did treat more than 1,000 people for meningitis.
The teams were covering pretty large areas, often driving for three or four hours a day and then spending a few hours in clinics and hospitals treating infected children. They traveled by land cruiser or jeep. This area is primarily desert. In Niger state, though, there were lakes and rivers, so our team was going out on boats to reach villages where they found and treated thousands of children
We had 8 to 10 mobile teams in each state—a doctor and a nurse who would travel from village to village, clinic to clinic. If they needed to set up longer-term treatment centers, or for any complicated cases or problems, the state medical coordinators would contact me.
One day I received a call from one of my nurses, Anja, who was in charge of surveillance in Zamfara. One of her team members had heard a very unsettling rumor: in a village nearby, a place with only 2,000 people, more than 40 children had died in the past three months. “We’re going tomorrow,” she said.
From Gusau, Zamfara’s capital, it took three hours to reach the village of Yargalma. At the small concrete building that served as the local health dispensary, they found six children suffering from high fevers and seizures under the care of two overwhelmed community health workers.
In a village nearby, a place with only 2,000 people, more than 40 children had died in the past three months.
When we see a child with these symptoms, we first think of infection. Malaria is always present in this part of the world. There is a type of malaria that causes swelling in the brain and seizures. Meningitis also affects the brain and can cause fevers and seizures.
The toll the sickness had already taken was made clear when the team visited the local cemetery. “I was standing in front of 39 fresh child graves,” Anja told me.
I immediately notified my supervisor, Hamza, the emergency coordinator for Nigeria, who notified our team in Amsterdam. We checked in with our logistical base in Zamfara to figure out how many drugs we had in stock and what we would need to get a 24-hour clinic running right away.
The MSF emergency team carried out its planned measles vaccination campaign that week, but I went to Yargalma with Frank Peters, a logistician from Colorado, and several nurses and doctors. We took a small supply of malaria medicines, IV catheters and fluids, anti-fever medicines, and some anti-seizure medicines.
In Yargalma, we started treating the children in the village dispensary. The building had no electricity, no running water, no advanced medical equipment, but we managed to transform it into a kind of intensive care unit.
For the first few days, the children were on the floor. Then people from the village brought mats for us to use as makeshift beds. We used candles and oil-burning lamps for light. I focused on medical care while Frank hired a cleaner, disinfected the facility, found more mats, and made sure we had clean water, a hand washing facility, and food.
Unraveling a Mystery
After two days, we decided to give blanket treatment: Every child with high fever and seizures automatically got drugs for severe malaria and meningitis. We knew it would not harm the children, and it was the quickest way for us to treat the children who were very weak from the high fever and seizures. But they weren’t getting better.
He saw women breaking stones, their babies on their backs...He realized that a heavy metal such as lead, arsenic, or mercury was probably getting released as well
We knew that gold mining took place in the village, but Frank was the one who started asking questions. He saw women breaking stones, their babies on their backs. He was shown machines used to grind down rocks, sending fine dust far and wide. He realized that a heavy metal such as lead, arsenic, or mercury was probably getting released as well.
We needed lab confirmation before we could treat because medical protocols for lead, mercury, and arsenic poisoning are very different. HQ in Amsterdam decided that the best option was a testing facility in Germany. The Nigerian Ministry of Health helped us gain permission to export human lab samples to Europe. And these samples confirmed that the children were suffering from severe lead poisoning.
An International Response
As soon as the diagnosis was confirmed, we contacted the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization for medical protocols, because this is something MSF had never treated before. The CDC called it the worst case of acute lead poisoning they have on record. As of today, more than 400 children have died in five villages, most of them under three years of age. (Young children are so vulnerable because they have a different metabolism, the concentration of lead in their bodies is higher, and they have more fat, which absorbs the lead.) The Blacksmith Institute, a nonprofit that leads international cleanup efforts in polluted sites in the developing world, is now at work in the affected villages.
The CDC called it the worst case of acute lead poisoning they have on record.
We had to move the clinic, because, we learned, if you treat patients for lead poisoning while they are still being exposed to it, you can actually do more harm than good. A hospital in nearby Anka offered us one of its wings, which our logisticians prepared with water, electricity, and beds. By August, MSF was treating 130 patients from three of the affected villages in the hospital—children as well as pregnant and nursing women—with chelation therapy, using a drug that binds to the lead and takes it out of the body.
Watching From Afar
I had to leave the project soon after we started treatment. My colleague, Emergency Desk Manager Lauren Cooney, later wrote me that they were seeing improvements, that a girl whose muscles had been so weakened that she couldn’t walk was back on her feet, for instance, and that a boy who was enduring repeated convulsions was no longer experiencing them. “But it’s only a small start,” Lauren wrote.
And, in fact, in late August, BBC reported that 13 more children died in a single village in one week. News like this is tough to take. I immediately contacted HQ in Amsterdam to find out if MSF was responding and if I could help in any way. I was informed that the rainy season had come, rendering the village inaccessible for the time being. MSF will send a team as soon as it is possible.
I had started studying at Johns Hopkins University to earn a dual masters degree in public health and global nursing. I am more than 5,000 miles away, but a part of me remains in Zamfara. It was one of the most difficult projects I have been a part of with MSF, but I hope I can be a part of something like it again. It was a great health mystery and MSF responded with strong teamwork that made lifesaving treatment available in a place it was desperately needed.