Written by Aliyu M. Hamagam, Minna
Evil spirits visited children, and soothsayers recommended destruction of a banana plantation, where the spirits were said to reside.
Then children began dying mysteriously, villagers believe-29 at last count.
The place is two neighbouring communities-Shikira and Kawo-in Madaki, Rafi local government area of Niger state, and families there have been in artisanal mining of kaolin for more than 50 years.
But the number of children who died in a short time forced evil spirits out of the mysterious deaths. From medical attention in nearby hospitals to the use of herbs, their cases worsened.
It changed when a health official of the local government council visiting the area on routine inspection found one child on treatment at the lone dispensary: he was convulsing, his temperature was high. Same circumstances had struck other children in the community, the official was told on enquiry.
Council authorities ordered further investigation-but the case that resulted was so huge, they called in the state health ministry.
In addition to mining kaolin, villagers also farmed. Three years after exhausting sites in their villages, they pushed into neighbouring villages of Shiroro local government area and into illegal mining of precious metals, with higher market value than kaolin ever had.
It is uncertain how illegal miners discovered the site-it is a three-hour journey from Kagara, headquarters of Rafi council area, on motorcycles. They are the only means of transport considering the long distances and difficult terrain.
News of recent discovery spread and attracted interest, and a flux of illegal miners with it. They came with crude knowledge and equally crude equipment, better financial muscle and a zeal to push up production.
Communities have been at mining for decades without any consequences. This time, they had struck gold so dangerous, it killed their children. The new gold came in ores with high concentrations of lead.
Mining gold involves extraction, crushing, grinding, sieving and washing. The process have increased over the years, exposing residents to high concentrations of lead-which can be absorbed through the skin, breathed in, or consumed in contaminated food.
The exposed communities risked health hazards from polluted air and contaminated drinking water sources.
The first deaths struck last year when nine children, all less than two years old, died one after the other from a strange disease, head of Kawo village Ahmed Galadima told Weekly Trust.
He was among the first of families to be hit by the tragedy in September last year: one of this children died. Since then the community has been in sorrow: every day came with the death of yet another child, until the health officials visited.
Four children in all died in his family. In the last quarter of last year, nine children died in his village. Ten more have died this year.
Residents attributed their calamity to an act of God and prayed for relief, said Galadima. The cycle was heinous: a child was rushed to hospital once symptoms like high temperature and convulsions showed and died within three days.
The deaths hit so frequently, there wasn’t enough days to hold the seventh-day prayers for dead children, required by Islam. Instead, residents settled for three-day prayers.
Galadima said the community was overwhelmed. At that point they had lost count of which child was the subject of commemorative prayers, and chose to hold three-day prayers to avoid confusion.
“When the news of the mysterious death reached people in authority, health officials visited us by informing us that a blood test will be conducted on us because the type of sickness killing our children has a semblance to lead poisoning, which occur as a result of the type of mining taking place in our communities.
“After the procedures were completed, we were told that eight out of those tested would be taken to Anka in Zamfara state for treatment. The eight diagnosed for further treatment have exhibited same symptoms of those that died as a result of the sickness,” he said.
Galadima also told Weekly Trust that long before the mining of the new lead-poisoned gem began, their communities were into mining activities but not for this type of precious stone.
The village head said when the mining started, he was the first to install a grinding machine for the processing of the mineral resource, but he had abandoned the job not because there was no money in it but because it interfered with his farming.
He further explained that the harmful effect of lead poison did not stop on their children but also affected their livestock saying at present all their cattle, sheep, goats and chickens died in similar circumstances as their dead children.
Social vice imported with influx of people into Kawo haven’t had much effect, said Galadima, because it did not interfere with the moral upbringing of children. But he said closure of the mining site had severely affected economic activities.
Head of Shikira village, Nuhu Magero, corroborated his side of the story: 10 children dead in Shikira.
He stated that in the beginning when the disaster broke, parents in the community looked for help from the herbalist, though most hardly survived.
Children taken to the village dispensary after they started showing symptoms routinely died three days later, whereas others died within a day of the symptoms showing.
The deaths were contained after officials from state and federal health ministries came on the scene. No death has been recorded in the last three weeks.
Asked what he knows about the reason behind the deaths, Magero said they were told that the disease was owing to air pollution as a result of the mining activities in their area, adding that in his domain there was no case of water pollution as they drink from boreholes.
Nurah Usman , a parent whose daughter died from lead poisoning said his 19-month-old daughter had been ill for three months.
The family was in hospital where the girl was admitted and transfused 10 intravenous fluids, then they were told to go back home and arrange to move to Anka in Zamfara to get her further treatment.
Usman also mined illegally, but is not aware lead from his work poisoned his daughter. He said doctors assured his daughter Hafsat suffered from a blood-related ailment and could be cured.
One of the boys dead in Shikira was the son of Yahaya Ibrahim. When the boy was taken ill, Ibrahim, who has mined for more than five years, didn’t take him to hospital but sought help from herbalists. That was his way of dealing with the high temperature and convulsions.
Lead poisoning being the cause of deaths of nearly 30 children all under age five wasn’t discovered early because residents did not report the deaths, said Sahabudeen Isa, chairman of Rafi local government area.
“The deaths of the children in the two communities began since September last year, and it was not made known to the authorities concerned until when it was discovered in April this year.
“The menace of lead poisoning was discovered in the affected communities when the primary healthcare director of the council visited the village during a routine visit,” he added.
He added that the director reported to him that he discovered two children receiving treatment in the two villages but running an abnormally high temperature. The situation that compelled him to ask the person in charge of the health facility to refer them to General Hospital Kagara.
When he inquired the reason for the high temperature in the two children, the villagers told him that for the past months their children died mysteriously in similar circumstances.
“On receiving this information, the council decided to further investigate the situation which it was later discovered that the people that mined in the communities processed the mineral resource mined in streams close to these communities thereby contaminating the water source as well as polluting the air as a result of which many got poisoned,” he stated.
According to him, four grinding machines for processing the minerals were found by the side of the stream.
On the immediate action taken to check the further deterioration of the situation, Isa said already the council had banned mining activities in the communities.
He said, “In order to ensure that the order was strictly complied with, security personnel are stationed at the stream side.”
The chairman further revealed that all the animals in the community have died though there is no certain tally of animal dead.
Director of public health of Niger state ministry of health, Dr Mohammed Usman, said 28 children mostly under five died as result of the contamination, and 64 others were diagnosed to be infected from the two communities.
According to him, the cause of the outbreak of the lead poisoning was reported to the state Ministry of Health in April saying, samples of the victims’ bloods were taken for laboratory analysis and that it was discovered to be the lead poisoning.
He said blood samples were taken to Anka in Zamfara state, and four other people seriously affected were referred to Anka General Hospital for further treatment.
“The state Ministry of Health is collaborating with many partners that includes, Doctors Without borders, Federal Ministry of Health and a host others for ensuring that the situation is brought under control.
“During investigation, we discovered that mining has been going on in the settlements for about 50 years now but the puzzle is why this presentation at this time. That is what we want to find scientifically, among other reasons, even though, we tested their blood and found the presence of lead poison.
“The possibilities are that the kind of rock being mined now at the settlement is loaded with lead compared to what is the concentration of the substance on the rock they are mining before.”
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