ABUJA, Nigeria — Lead poisoning tied to illegal gold mining has killed 163 people, including 111 children, in northern Nigeria over the past five months, a senior health official said on Friday.
"We have recorded 163 deaths, including 111 children since January from lead poisoning in Zamfara state as a result of illegal mining," a top epidemiologist in the federal health ministry Henry Akpan told AFP.
He said the epidemic was reported in five villages in two local government areas -- Anka and Bungudu -- the latter close to the state capital of Gusau.
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," said Akpan.
Authorities have banned the illegal mining and are carrying out an environmental clean-up exercise.
"We are doing a lot to contain the epidemic," he said.
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.
Together with Nigeria's health ministry, they are working to inform residents of the health dangers of illegal mining.
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.
An environmental health official in the state, who asked not to be named because he does not have clearance to speak to the media, said tests are being conducted on people suspected to have come into contact with lead.
"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," he told AFP.
Akpan said health officials were also carrying out "environmental decontamination of the affected areas."
Although Zamfara is known for its agriculture, it is rich in solid minerals, but these have not yet been harnessed on large scale.
In rainy season streams and river banks are packed with poverty-stricken villagers scooping up soil in search of traces of gold, according the environmental ministry official.
President Goodluck Jonathan last week inaugurated a mineral processing plant in Zamfara state.
Nigeria, sub Saharan Africa's second largest economy, boasts of vast resources, including oil, but majority of its people live in poverty.
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