Nigerians are still groaning under the throes of food poisoning despite the government’s enlightenment campaigns against it; ELEOJO IDACHABA writes.
Over and over again, the blames for food poisoning are heaped on the government/regulating agencies who are accused of not doing enough to mitigate such occurrences. Investigations by this reporter have, however, revealed that carelessness and general poverty, among other malaise, in the land are generally responsible for this unabated malady.
For instance, not too long ago, almost an entire family in Sokoto perished after they consumed what is considered a poisonous substance. According to details of the report, 24 members of a family in Danzanke village of Bargaja ward, Isa local government area of the state perished after eating the food said to be poisoned by a fertiliser type of chemical, popularly called ‘Gishirin Lalle’ in Hausa language. It is assumed to be as seasoning in domestic family cooking which is synonymous with common salt.
Making the sad disclosure in Sokoto is the commissioner for health, Ali Inname.
In a statement, the commissioner said only two female members of the family alongside others escaped from the calamity by a stroke of luck.
“Regrettably, the entire family who ate the meal lost their lives except two female members who merely tasted the food and are currently responding to treatment, with very good chances of survival. Attempts to save the lives of all the affected people by providing the needed medical care proved abortive. He, therefore, called on the people to always ensure the separation of food storage sites from other agricultural and cosmetic items to avoid this type of incident in the future.
The commissioner pointed out that food stores should be secured to prevent access to flies, while cooked food and water sources, he noted should be secured in order to safeguard their surroundings while also washing hands with soap and water.
“Wells should have covers to prevent contamination from faces of surface water after rainfall; the water should be boiled before use, especially in rural areas.
“Report to a health facility or isolation camp in your area early when you observe any unusual symptoms or unusual condition,” he said.
While many would want to blame the Sokoto incident on poverty, analysis have shown that it is merely a case of carelessness. For instance, in its editorial of August 18 2021, The Nation Online reported, “The Danzake incident was an eye-opening tragedy as residents of the remote community could not miss the lesson by differentiating between salt and fertiliser. It is not enough to say the deaths resulted from a mistake; it was a costly mistake indeed.”
While posing several rhetorical questions the paper asked, “Were those who prepared the killer meal unaware that they used fertiliser as salt? Were they short of salt? Was it an experiment? Did the fertiliser look like salt? Did they know the difference between fertiliser and salt?
“There are more questions than answers which make the case untidy. The authorities need to do more to clarify what happened and how fertiliser suddenly became a seasoning.
“Fertiliser is certainly not meant for seasoning food in the way salt is and the villagers are expected to know this. The authorities should launch an enlightenment campaign to remove any confusion on the use of fertiliser and salt.
“The Danzanke tragedy was an unusual case of food poisoning. About 200,000 Nigerians are said to die annually from food poisoning, and the country is said to record up to 90,000 cases of food-borne disease yearly. The Danzanke tragedy further drew attention to the issue,” it stated.
Related to this is the recent disclosure by the director general of National Agency for Food Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Professor Mojisola Adeyeye, at a recent workshop in Abuja on the use of trucks to convey fertilisers and other agro-chemicals/hazardous materials also for the transportation of grains and other food commodities including use of petroleum tankers for transporting vegetable oil, water and other food products.
She listed unhygienic practices by some vendors to include artificial ripening of fruits using unapproved agents such as calcium, unapproved insecticide such as sniper for the preservation of grains and use of containers contaminated with hazardous chemicals such as fertiliser bags for grains or chemical drums and jerry cans for food storage purposes.
She said, “The display of food products in the sun could produce harmful by-products such as benzene in soft drinks. Mock packs for display, use of cast iron as food processing machines or equipment and utilities which contaminate foods being processed with lead and other heavy metal storage to protect food product from infestation by rodents and pests as well as prevention of contamination and degradation due to environmental factors, are not good for human consumption.
“Others are adulteration of palm oil with Sudan IV (azo dye) which is a dangerous practice that puts the lives of millions of Nigerians and others at risk and food fraud which includes packaging of illicit alcohol falsely labelled and sold as spirit drinks thereby exposing consumers to high level of contaminants such as methanol, which could sometimes claim innocent lives. These are serious concerns for this agency.”
Food therapist’s take
Also speaking, a food therapist, Mrs. Cordelia Amadi, told Blueprint Weekend that the Sokoto incident is an example of food abuse commonly found in many communities in Nigeria especially in the northern part.
“I want to believe that the woman or those who cooked the deadly meal knew that what she was using as salt or seasoning is certainly not the right thing, but because of the level of addiction to drugs and dangerous substances in that part of the country, nobody cared to question it until a whole family perished.
“I have been waiting to read if some dealers of such products have been arrested and the goods impounded, but nothing like that yet. That means, it is already a thriving phenomenon that went wrong after this incident. I blame the people as well as the regulating agencies. No one can claim ignorance of this,” she said.
Not too long ago, news filtered into the air about a reported case of food poisoning in Kano state. As at the time the discovery was made, four persons were reportedly dead while nearly two hundred others were admitted in various hospitals across the state with medical conditions ranging from vomiting to dizziness and urinating blood.
This latest discovery in Kano was also confirmed by NAFDAC. Its director-general, Prof Adeyeye said the strange illness is caused by food poisoning.
According to her, “The Kano incident is a case of food poisoning with flavored drinks that has a chemical called dansami. It is very serious because the food poisoning resulted in diarrhea, vomiting, and hospitalisation.”
This is not the first time that food poisoning-related incidents would be reported in Kano. In 2009, there were widespread cases of food poisoning resulting from unsafe yam flour consumed, a development in which many families lost their beloved ones. Also, lead poisoning in Zamfara state a few years ago, precisely in 2010, is another case in point. In that incident, several children in northern Nigeria suffered inexplicable death until health officials uncovered lead poisoning in children.
In that incident, public health officials learned that hundreds of children had become sick in the north and died shortly after suffering from vomiting, abdominal pain, headaches, and seizures.
The public health medical team came from the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) office in Abuja, officials from the Federal Ministry of Health, the Nigerian Field Epidemiology and Laboratory Training Programme, the World Health Organisation, and Doctors Without Borders. After thorough investigation in two villages, it was discovered that one-fourth of all children in those communities had died from inexplicable diseases. The team found unsafe levels of lead inside most of the homes. Also, water from the community wells had high levels of lead, the reason for which children in those villages had high levels of lead in their blood.
A journalist’s fate
In 2016, a Daily Independent Newspaper reporter, Emmanuel Okwuke, lost his life to food poisoning in Lagos. This was after he ate banana fruit that was forced into ripening through carbide, a poisonous toxin that damaged his lungs and liver. According to the report, the late Okwuke until his death was the information and communications technology editor of the paper and was said to have bought the fruit at Ketu on his way home after closing late from office just to avoid eating late solid food since he would not arrive home until past 11pm. Unknown to him, that fruit took him to the land beyond.
Before he died days after a protracted illness, he narrated what happened the midnight he ate the fruit.
“When I collapsed, I called my wife but my voice was not loud enough; somehow, she found me where I was on the floor. I was very weak and was rushed to the hospital by my wife and neighbours, as I was told later.
“I didn’t know where I was until the following day. I was told by the doctor that I had food poisoning. And from the test and everything, it was discovered that it was the banana that I ate the previous night that caused the crisis. My wife, Julie, brought the remaining banana and subsequent tests revealed that they had carbide,” he said.
The Health Watch Monitor, a health publication, stated that, “Because of poor data collection in Nigeria and absence of surveillance systems, it is difficult to reach an accurate picture of the burden of food-borne diseases.
“However, there are some evidences that these illnesses contribute to ill health and death in the country and there is evidence of unsafe food practices by caterers and food handlers in various settings.”
It added that, “Food poisoning usually manifests as fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea and is most commonly caused by salmonella, escherichia coli and campylobacter.”
In what it referred to as ‘Death in Small Doses’, the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) stated that, “Investigation has shown that some of the chemicals that were banned 12 years ago and those that were recently considered too unsafe by the government to be sold in open markets are still very much available in various markets around the country.
“Pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and other chemicals can be found in the open markets. The chemicals are used on foods such as grains, cereals, legumes and later taken to the market against approved duration when the potency of the chemicals should have worn off.”
It added that, “While the administration of some of the chemicals is allowed at permissible levels for food storage to avoid post-harvest losses, those who administer the chemical on the food items are untrained to do so.”
As it is, many unsuspecting Nigerians have passed away even as more might still go the same way, no thanks to food poisoning.