Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has finally been able to start medical treatment for children suffering from lead poisoning in the village of Bagega in Nigeria. In the first of four groups to receive medical care, MSF has started 34 children on specialized chelation therapy to remove the lead from their blood, and will monitor a further 126 children. MSF says however, that this is just the beginning; it cannot treat children from the remaining three groups until the lead has been successfully removed from their homes.
Acute lead poisoning in children can cause severe brain damage and death. MSF has been treating victims of the Zamfara lead poisoning crisis – the worst outbreak ever recorded – since it was first discovered in 2010, and has so far treated more than 2,500 children (1). Until today, however, the medical humanitarian organization has been unable to start treatment in Bagega because it had not been remediated. Remediation in this context involves the removal of lead-contaminated soils and mining and mineral processing wastes from the village, residential compounds, homes and buildings, common areas, wells and ponds. Remediation is an essential condition for medical treatment – otherwise children are continually re-exposed to lead toxins, rendering the treatment ineffective.
“MSF is very happy to have finally – after three years – begun medical treatment in Bagega,” says Simon Tyler, MSF country representative in Nigeria. “MSF is however, acutely aware that this group is only the first of four needing urgent medical treatment in Bagega. The ongoing remediation must be completed before the rains come in order for us to reach all of the children in need in the village.”
Patients are divided into four groups, according to when remediation of their houses is complete. With the first section of Bagega remediated, MSF has been able to put the first group on treatment. In addition to children receiving chelation therapy, hundreds more children with moderate levels of lead in their blood (but who fall below the treatment level) will be monitored by MSF’s medical teams. In total, MSF expects to have between 600 and 800 children in Bagega under care.
Remediation can only be carried out in the dry season, delays in the release of urgently needed funding means the remediation started late, and efforts have to be tripled to finish before the rains come (2).
“We have achieved more than we had hoped to in a very short time in Bagega, but our teams are under tremendous pressure to finish the remediation on a very tight schedule,” says Simba Tirima, director of field operations for the TerraGraphics Foundation which is overseeing the remediation process. “Unfortunately ongoing procedural delays have also slowed our pace significantly. Now everything depends on the rains. We are working around the clock to ensure that all of the children of Bagega have every opportunity to receive treatment by MSF as soon as possible.”
Ultimately, solving the Zamfara crisis requires a triple approach: medical treatment, remediation, and safer mining practices. MSF maintains its position that safer mining practices must be introduced to ensure that people involved in mining and processing ore can do so without exposing themselves or others to lead poisoning.
MSF has been providing emergency medical services throughout Nigeria since 1971.
1. In March 2010, MSF responded to reports of children dying mysteriously in communities across Zamfara state, northern Nigeria. An estimated 400 children died, and thousands more were discovered to have excessive and unprecedented levels of lead in their blood. It was the worst recorded lead poisoning outbreak in history – see: Lead poisoning outbreak
2. The six month Progress Report to an MSF led Conference on Lead Poisoning in May 2012 is available here: Conference and MSF report