FILE - A Congolese child eats a meal at a UNHCR reception center in the Kyangwali refugee settlement camp, Uganda March 19, 2018.
FILE - A Congolese child eats a meal at a UNHCR reception center in the Kyangwali refugee settlement camp, Uganda March 19, 2018.

Uganda and the United Nations World Food Program are investigating whether a food supplement used to fight malnutrition is responsible for hundreds of cases of suspected food poisoning. Three Ugandans have died after eating Super Cereal, a fortified porridge imported from Turkey.

Uganda’s Ministry of Health said Tuesday that at least 262 people in the northern Karamoja region have shown mental confusion, vomiting, headaches, high fever and abdominal pain since March 12 after eating Super Cereal.

The food supplement, manufactured in Turkey, was distributed by the World Food Program to prevent malnutrition and stunted growth among children.

While most of the patients were discharged from hospitals after treatment, Health Minister Ruth Aceng said three deaths since Saturday set off alarm bells.

“Samples of Super Cereal stocks and water were taken from the affected areas, including blood, vomitus and urine from patients, and are currently being analyzed at the Directorate of Government Analytical Laboratory and the Central Public Health Laboratory,” Aceng said.

Investigators from the Ministry of Health and the WFP are mapping out where the illnesses occurred, looking for connections.

While Super Cereal cannot yet be blamed, investigators want to establish associated factors and possible causes of why so many Ugandans getting sick.

The health ministry has sent samples to Mombasa and Johannesburg for laboratory testing.  Preliminary results are expected in seven days.  

Meanwhile, WFP Country Director Elkhidir Daloum assured Ugandans that Super Cereal undergoes all required quality controls before distribution.

“WFP has zero tolerance for poor quality or low quality of food. We have a rigorous system from production to consumers. When we tender, we have to tender and do complete due diligence about the supplier,” Daloum said.

The WFP was distributing Super Cereal to 252 locations in Karamoja, including sites across 13 districts that host refugees.

As Ugandans wait for the test results, the WFP said it is difficult to say what could have caused possible contamination.

WFP Senior Regional Spokesperson Peter Smerdon said Super Cereal has only oil and sugar added before distribution.

“So, it’s difficult to see where the contamination could have got in. That’s why we are so perplexed and that’s why we’re really hoping laboratory tests will come out and say where it came in in the supply chain and what exactly it is,” Smerdon said.

The WFP and Ugandan government ordered the immediate suspension of Super Cereal distribution on Friday as a precaution after illnesses were first reported.

Super Cereal stocks at all health centers and communities are also being seized until the cause of the food poisoning can be determined.