GUSAU, Nigeria - Doctors are struggling to save children stricken by lead poisoning, many of them blind, deaf and unable to walk, after poor herdsmen began illegally mining gold in an area of northern Nigeria with high concentrations of lead.
More than 160 villagers have died and hundreds more have been sickened in the remote villages of Zamfara state, officials said Tuesday. The region is near the border with Niger, on the cusp of the Sahara Desert.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the agency's initial tests found extremely high levels of lead in the blood of adults and children, who are the most suscep-tible to the illness. "The scope of the poisoning is unprecedented in CDC's work with lead poisoning worldwide," said agency spokeswoman Vivi Abrams.
Nigerian officials asked for help last month from the CDC and other international agencies to help treat illnesses local authorities initially blamed on malaria.
Doctors Without Borders has set up a medical center for children there and hopes to open another in coming weeks, said Lauren Cooney, emergency coordinator for the agency, also known by its French name, Médecins Sans Frontières.
Children 5 and younger are the most severely affected, she said. "We had one little girl who is blind and deaf probably following a convulsion. We have some of the children who have lost all of their motor skills." Cooney said their mothers also are receiving treatment as lead can pass through their breast milk.
Local officials estimate 300 people are sick and fear an increase as lead in the soil contaminates villages. There is also concern that seasonal rains could wash lead into water supplies and other villages.