The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) is working with the Nigerian Government to contain an unprecedented outbreak of lead poisoning in the country's north, a result of the processing of lead-rich ore in gold mining.

Earlier this year, the non-governmental organization (NGO) known as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) informed the Ministry of Health in the state of Zamfara of a rise in the number of the deaths and illnesses of children in the villages of Bukkuyum and Anka.

WHO joined an international investigation team, which confirmed that more than 100 children in the area were suffering from severe lead poisoning, with more than 10 times the concentration of lead in their blood than the levels associated with impaired neurological development in young children.

Further, lead concentrations that are 250 times higher than the limit for residential areas in the United States and France were also found in the area.

WHO has deployed epidemiologists, paediatricians and others to carry out further technical assistance to respond to the outbreak and prevent similar ones in the future.

A random sample of 56 children under the age of five from the villages of Abare and Tungar-guru found that more than 90 per cent of them had lead poisoning, with the vast majority requiring urgent treatment.

The agency said that there is a strong likelihood that the high rates of convulsions and deaths in young children in these villages are due to lead poisoning.

It also estimates that more than 2,000 people need chelation therapy to remove the lead from their bodies in the area, with Zamfara's Ministry of Health noting that there may be other villages in the state where lead poisoning is an issue.

WHO said that to prevent further deaths and long-term neurological damage in affected children, it is vital that villages are decontaminated, especially homes. Further, poisoned children must be identified and given the necessary treatment.

For chelation therapy to be effective, WHO noted, children must be removed from exposure to lead, which means they cannot return to their homes until their residences have been cleaned.

Accra / Ghana/ Africa /