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Doctors Begin Treatment for Lead-Poisoned Nigerian Children

Children suffering from lead poisoning wait to see medical workers, in Gusau, Nigeria, June 9, 2010.
Doctors Without Borders says it has started treating hundreds of children in Nigeria's Zamfara state who suffered lead poisoning by playing in contaminated dirt.

Cleanup efforts in the area are making progress. But the medical aid group warns that time for the cleanup project is running out as the rainy season closes in.

Before lead-poisoned children can be treated, the dirt they walk over and play in must be cleaned up, or they will just be re-contaminated again.

Three years after the world’s worst recorded lead-poisoning outbreak was discovered here in northwestern Nigeria, the last of the villages identified as being in extreme danger is now being cleaned up, through a process called “remediation.”

The process involves removing contaminated dirt and replacing it with clean soil. But rains in the area have become more frequent.

Simon Tyler, who heads Doctors Without Borders in Nigeria, says if it keeps raining, cleanup workers may have to stop, as the wet dirt becomes heavy and the sloshy mud is hard to control.

Hundreds of children in the region have already died from lead poisoning and many more have been permanently disabled.

On a happier note, Doctors Without Borders announced Tuesday that it is finally able to screen and treat some of the children left behind when the other contaminated villages were cleaned up.

Hamzat Lawal heads Open Development Watch, which promotes human rights through transparent governance, and is one of the activist groups that have been calling for cleanup in the village, called Bagega.

“It’s happening today because Nigerians - every Nigerian - stood up for the kids in Bagega, Zamfara State to be taken care of,” said Lawal.

Local health workers remove earth contaminated by lead from a family compound in the village of Dareta in Gusau, Nigeria, Jun. 10, 2010.
Local health workers remove earth contaminated by lead from a family compound in the village of Dareta in Gusau, Nigeria, Jun. 10, 2010.
The challenge now, Lawal says, is maintaining health in the region, which is awash with gold that happens to emit lead dust when extracted from the ground.

He says Doctors Without Borders was the only health organization that took steps to treat lead poisoning in Zamfara State and since it primarily deals with health crises, not long-term care, it will eventually move out.

“Our own fear and concern is: If the remediation process finishes and these kids get treated and they’re all fine," said Lawal. What happens when MSF is not around and you have a lead poisoning outbreak? Is the Ministry of Health able to live up to expectations and mobilize to the community and take care of these children?”

Lawal says long-term concerns also include mining policies that currently do not encourage safe practices among small-scale miners.