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MSF Says Children No Longer Dying Of Lead Poisoning In Northwest Nigeria

Eleven years after environmental contamination, MSF has said children are not dying from lead poisoning in Zamfara State, Northwest Nigeria.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) /Doctors Without Borders, has revealed in its latest assessment that children are no longer dying of lead poisoning, 11 years after environmental contamination caused the death of hundreds of children in Zamfara State, Northwest Nigeria.

The lead poisoning, which was discovered by MSF in 2010, had killed at least 400 inhabitants, mainly children, who are the most vulnerable owing to access and accidental ingestion of contaminated objects.

The international NGO said laboratory tests later confirmed high levels of lead in the blood of survivors. 

The root cause of the poisoning was environmental contamination through unsafe, artisanal mining activities in the area, where gold deposits contain an unusually high concentration of lead. Lead can cause severe brain damage and death in children.

Zamfara State is known as an agricultural region, and traditionally most villagers rely on farming to earn a living. 

However, MSF learned that the area was also rich in many minerals, including gold. In recent years, many villagers have been involved in artisanal mining to earn more money.

“Artisanal mining has been going on for a decade in this area. People transformed the villages into processing sites and contaminated the environment for many years. Children were exposed to contaminated dust and soil in the villages,” says Benjamim Mwangombe, MSF project coordinator.

MSF’s interventions 

Over the past five years, MSF has been running a lead poisoning intervention programme in  Zamfara State.

The leading programme which was based on an multi-sector approach that included partnerships with external organisations specialised in environmental engineering and safe mining practices.

The organisation stated that before commencing treatment, the contaminated areas needed to be remediated so that children would not be continually re-exposed to toxins. 

In partnership with  communities, eight villages in Anka and Bukkuyum local government areas of the state were remediated, by removing contaminated soils and mineral processing waste from residential areas, wells and ponds. 

Also, MSF screened 8,480 children under five for lead poisoning between May 2010 and Dec. 2021.  More than 80 per cent of them were enrolled in a medical lead program, including 3,549 children who received lengthy chelation therapy to remove lead from their blood.

In April 2015, MSF also discovered lead poisoning caused by artisanal gold mining and resulted in the death of at least 30 children in Nigeria’s Niger State. MSF provided chelation treatment to 139 children and handed over the project to Niger State authorities and traditional leaders in Oct. 2018.

Miners were provided with information and tools to reduce and curb the exposure during mining and processing activities, and to minimize off-site contamination. 

“We will continue to ensure that the environment remains clean, so that children will not get poisoned again,” says Alhaji Shehu Anka, general director of Zamfara Environmental Sanitation Agency.

The MSF approach is community based which allows local communities to take ownership of the project.

“Our intervention was community-based. The community has been involved throughout so that they could take ownership. We also improved local capacity. In the future, if there is another outbreak, there will be capacity to respond,” said Mwangombe.

One of the key factors MSF revealed for the successful reduction of exposure to lead poisoning was the involvement of international organisations with expertise in environmental health, safer mining and occupational health that complemented its medical response.

As a result of the success from the multi-sector approach, MSF handed over the program to key ministries of the Zamfara state government, the Anka Emirate Council and the local community at the beginning of Feb. 2022.

What lies ahead

“Prevention requires involvement from everyone – from village chiefs and traditional leaders to state authorities and legislators – so that everyone’s efforts will help maintain the remedy that we have handed over and prevent any future outbreak of lead poisoning in Zamfara state,” Mwangombe said.

According to MSF, artisanal mining still remains a poverty-driven activity that will exist as long as gold mining is profitable. 

Recently, the health organisation discovered another area with lead contamination in Abare village in Zamfara. At the end of Jan. 2022, the Zamfara State government approved the financing of the environmental remediation of the contaminated area. 

“Remediation and chelation therapy are not only very expensive, but also insufficient to eliminate the lead poisoning hazard in the communities. Due to the rampant poverty and lack of other employment opportunities, small-scale mining remains the only option for many people and many are unaware of the health hazards caused by their mining practices. Some previously remediated areas were re-contaminated,” MSF reported.

“Mining is an important source of income for these villages. Since it is not possible to stop mining completely, it is important that mining is made safer for the communities. Public health officials have developed public health messages to educate people about the dangers of lead poisoning and how to prevent it.”

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