Nigeria: A matter of gold and death

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Immunization officers went from hut to hut to immunize children in the northern Nigerian State of Zamfara. In one of the Zamfara villages where a Chinese company had been recently employed to mine gold, the immunization team noticed there were hardly any children there. At least 163 Children in the village had died in recent weeks. The villagers thought the children were dying of malaria, but something else was killing the children.

International aid agency Medecins Sans Frontiers was not convinced the children in the villages of Zamfara were dying of malaria. Blood samples were taken from the villages and tested, and it was found that villagers had high concentrations of lead.

The talk of gold in Zamfara had brought the kind of curse that has followed almost every discovery of natural wealth in Africa. Villagers in Zamfara would attempt to rush to the mines and pillage their share of the new found hot resource, before the government took complete control of the mines, or before a rebellion began and stories of blood gold are told.

According to the Nigerian Health Ministry, the gold mines are rich in lead, and the children fell sick and died after lead removed from the gold mines by the ambitious villagers, had contaminated the local water systems in the process of refining the gold ore.

“The poisonings were caused by the illegal extraction of ore by villagers, who would transport crushed rock home from the mines. They would then extract the gold and haphazardly dispose of the soil containing lead deposits which children would play with. The more than 100 child victims got poisoned through inhalation or hand-to-mouth contamination,” a top epidemiologist in the federal health ministry Henry Akpan told AFP.

Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body, often over a period of months or years. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems. Children under the age of 6 are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development. At very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal.

“We have recorded 163 deaths, including 111 children since January from lead poisoning in Zamfara state as a result of illegal mining,” Akpan added.

Nigeria’s Health Ministry have set up two camps in the area to treat people who are suffering symptoms of lead poisoning. However, a total of 163 out of 355 cases of poisoning have proved deadly. Reports claim that the number has been rising since March.

“The health ministry is undertaking clinical tests on all the people in the affected communities to ascertain the level of lead contamination in their body to determine those that require urgent medical intervention,” Akpan said.

According to experts, Lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust in older buildings are the most common sources of lead poisoning in children. If ingested or inhaled, lead can enter the bloodstream and block the production of heamoglobin, which is needed by red cells to carry oxygen and could damage organs including the brain, nervous system and kidneys.

Although Zamfara is known for its agriculture, it is rich in solid minerals, but these have not yet been harnessed on large scale. During rainy seasons streams and river banks are packed with poverty-stricken villagers scooping up soil in search of traces of gold, according to the Nigerian Environmental Ministry.

The World Health Organisation, the US Centre for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) are helping the government to handle the matter.

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