July 15, 2010
Nigeria 2010 © Olga Overbeek/MSF
Earlier this year, cases of lead poisoning of children and adults were confirmed in villages in Zamfara State, northwestern Nigeria. Since early June, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), in collaboration with the State Ministry of Health, has been providing emergency treatment for children under five years old. Children in this age group are most vulnerable to the risks of poisoning. Lead poisoning is a consequence of 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 surveys undertaken so far by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization (WHO), and MSF, it is estimated that the entire populations of seven contaminated villages may now be affected: approximately 10,000 individuals, 2,000 of who are children under five years of age, are in acute danger of death or severe illness. An acute high level of lead poisoning is fatal in young children and can also kill older children and adults. Lead poisoning may result in brain damage, infertility, and kidney failure, and other major health problems as well as miscarriages and stillbirths.
MSF is currently providing chelation therapy for the most vulnerable patients from two of the affected villages. Some 100 children and 28 breast-feeding mothers are receiving treatment in two specially established units within the general hospitals of Bukkuyum and Anka in Zamfara state. 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 the only part of the solution that MSF can provide,” said 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.”
In order to avoid the risk of renewed contamination, discharged patients must return to a home environment that is free of lead poisoning. For this reason, the cleaning up of contaminated sites is key to any treatment activities. The environmental organization Terra-graphics/ Blacksmith Foundation is working with the state and local authorities to decontaminate Yargalma and Dareta villages so that the chelation therapy provided is not meaningless with people becoming sick again.
Social mobilization and awareness activities are important components to ensuring that children receive the necessary treatment. All members of the community need to have information about 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 five 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.
© 2013 Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)