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In Nigeria, Time Running Out for Kids Poisoned by Lead

Omema survived lead poisoning but her caretakers say she can't hear or speak and is constantly sickly. Parents say they can't count the number of children that have been killed by lead poisoning in recent years. (H. Murdock for VOA)
The medical aid group Doctors Without Borders estimates that 1,500 children are suffering from lead poisoning in a northern Nigerian village, and can not be treated until the lead is cleaned up. The organization says if the cleanup does not begin soon, it may not be able to treat the children when, or if the cleanup ever happens.

In the quiet village of Bagega, in northern Nigeria, the children were exposed when small-scale gold mining near the village released poisonous lead dust into the air.

Hours away at a café in the capital, Abuja, Doctors Without Borders humanitarian affairs officer Hosanna Fox says it is not just medical workers that are alarmed.

"All the state agencies, all the community leaders, people that are involved in various aspects of mining. They’re all joining forces with one message: There’s no more time left," Fox explains. "Children are suffering and dying from lead poisoning. Further government delay will have catastrophic effects for a group of children that have already been victims for two years.”

Fox says cleanup of the lead is possible, and the government set aside more than $4 million in May for the project, but the money is tied up in the bureaucracy.

She says unless the money is released by the middle of this month, there won't be enough time to complete the cleanup before the rainy season begins in April or May.

If the cleanup is delayed until next year, she says, the treatment of the children will have to be delayed too, because treatment cannot be successful if lead dust is still in the environment.

Fox says Doctors Without Borders will not commit to taking Bagega children into the group's lead poison treatment program unless the cleanup begins soon.

“We’ve had really great success medically, but unfortunately we can’t wait indefinitely for the government of Nigeria to take action and at some point we will have to put limitations on our commitment,” he warns.

The Zamfara lead poisoning outbreak began in 2010 and has been called the largest in recorded history. Hundreds of children died and others continue to suffer long-term mental and emotional problems and disabilities like paralysis and cerebral palsy.

Aid workers say lead poisoning also affects adults in Zamfara state but treatment is not available.

Treatment has been made available for children under five years old in seven villages, they say, including one called Sumke.

While women pound flour with traditional clubs and children chase each other, three-year-old Omema wanders quietly, chewing on maize. Her aunt says she can not speak or hear since she was rushed to the hospital suffering from convulsions.

She says the she can not count the number of children who died and women who had miscarriages when the outbreak began, but now things are better.

The village has been cleaned up and there is a clinic only a few minutes away by foot. Residents still mine gold that, when processed, releases the poison lead dust. But the ground has been cleaned up and miners have learned safety techniques, like changing their clothes before they pick up their babies.