A bit of background: in March 2010, a Médecins Sans Frontières team in Nigeria noticed that an alarming number of children were dying in the northern state of Zamfara. It turned out to be a lead poisoning outbreak -- reportedly the worst in recorded history -- and more than 400 children are estimated to have died as a result.
Children are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning -- and these kids were badly poisoned indeed. Some blood samples taken from Zamfara children showed shocking lead levels of between 168 and 370 micrograms per decilitre of blood -- according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, anything above 45 micrograms per decilitre is urgent and requires immediate chelation therapy.
The Zamfara outbreak can be traced back to the 2009 economic recession, which triggered a gold rush as villagers suddenly realized they could get good prices for the gold they knew to be buried underfoot. Unfortunately, the rock in Zamfara is concentrated with lead -- and it was all being released into the environment by the fervent mining activity.
MSF immediately initiated an emergency response but also demanded that the Nigerian government decontaminate the villages through environmental remediation -- after all, it would be pointless to initiate expensive chelation treatments only to have the children be continually re-exposed.
Seven of the eight affected villages were remediated over the ensuing years. But as of late last year, the final and largest village -- called Bagega, with an estimated 1,500 children -- was still waiting for the Nigerian government to release the remediation funds promised by the president in May 2012.
In late January 2013, the government finally released about 850 million Nigerian naira and environmental clean-up activities in Bagega -- spearheaded by environmental engineering company TerraGraphics -- were finally able to begin.
And on Tuesday, the Nigeria-based Follow the Money non-profit initiative announced in a press release that remediation was on track to finish by Friday.
“The people of Bagega and Zamfara are entirely excited that the remediation is complete after a very long time,” said Hamzat Lawal with Follow the Money and non-profit organization NYCAN in a phone interview from Nigeria.
stressed, however, that two things are now needed: 1) a sustainability
plan for safer mining practices, and 2) a strategy for transferring medical knowledge from MSF to local health workers, so that future outbreaks can be managed by Nigerians.
In the same press release, Michelle Chouinard, an MSF Nigeria staffer from New Brunswick, announced that 981 children in Bagega have been screened since April 22, with 941 on track for admission into the treatment program and another 181 already undergoing chelation therapy.
Yup. For the kids of Bagega, that's a pretty good reason to smile.
Jennifer Yang is the Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar