NEW YORK — Lead poisoning usually causes life-long debilitating illness, not immediate death. Yet in the state of Zamfara, a poor, arid region in northern Nigeria, lead poisoning has killed more than 400 children in the past six months.
The soil in this area is contaminated with toxins, which illegal gold mining operations released into local water supplies. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which at the request of the Nigerian government sent a team of experts to help assess the situation, called the extent and severity of lead poisoning in the area “unprecedented.”
The tragedy unfolding in Zamfara is not a simple act of nature. Rather, it’s the latest testament to the Nigerian government’s failure to make the health of its citizens a priority. Despite Nigeria’s impressive economic growth and its status as one of the world’s biggest producers of oil and gas, the country’s public health indicators are truly abysmal.
Nigeria has the second-highest rate of maternal mortality in the world. It is one of the four remaining countries where polio is an ongoing epidemic. An outbreak of cholera this year has killed 2,000 people and sickened 40,000 — so far. Nigeria’s life expectancy at birth is 47 years, 30 percent below the world average and significantly lower than nearly all of its West African neighbors. Nearly one in five of Nigeria’s children die before they reach age 5.
These tragic statistics are part of the human cost of the rampant corruption that has dogged Nigeria in recent decades. Rather than use its tremendous oil revenue to improve people’s lives, Nigeria’s leaders at the national, state and local levels have siphoned off government coffers and allowed public institutions, such as the health care system, to crumble. For the wealthy and politically connected, the dismal health care system is nothing more than an inconvenience; for them, services are available abroad, in Europe or the Middle East.
With local health care so tragically underfunded and mismanaged, it’s not surprising that a massive outbreak of lead poisoning in Zamfara was able to progress to the point of killing hundreds of children before health authorities stepped in. And the toll may not yet be fully counted: Emergency humanitarian aid teams suspect that the area of contamination is far larger than originally estimated, and the number who have died much higher. With heavy rains, toxic lead contamination may spread further, threatening the lives of even more Nigerian children.
How can these tragedies be avoided? Greater investment in health is needed but is not enough. To counter corruption, mechanisms need to be put in place to ensure that Nigeria’s natural resource wealth is protected in the public coffers. Increasing government transparency is critical, and simple: State and local governments should be required to make their revenue, budgets and expenditure reports public. The National Assembly should pass the Freedom of Information Bill, which has been languishing in parliament since 1999. These two steps would grant Nigerians access to government documents, including those with information on public services and budgets.
Mass lead poisoning and massive cholera epidemics are tragedies of the 19th century, not the 21st. If Nigeria wants to be a global leader and a modern nation, a simple first step would be to increase government transparency. Millions of lives may be saved.
Joe Amon is director of the health and human rights division at Human Rights Watch.