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DARETA, Nigeria (Reuters) - Scores of infants in northern Nigeria could be left with long-term neurological damage from lead poisoning caused by illegal gold mining which has already killed at least 170, most of them under five.
Authorities in the state of Zamfara, aided by international agencies including Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are helping treat the sick and bury mines to try to contain the pollution before heavy rains due next month.
The discovery of a gold deposit triggered a "gold rush" among impoverished farmers who dug up rocks by hand, unaware the ore contained dangerously high concentrations of lead.
At least six villages have been contaminated with high concentrations of lead spread by dust from the open mines, and by women processing the ore in compounds where children play barefoot.
The Blacksmith Institute, a New York-based anti-pollution consultancy which has sent experts to help in the clean-up, said at least 170 children had died in the past month. All but three of 133 children tested had lead levels so high it was off the scale of the detection equipment.
"We expect several hundred children will require treatment over the next few months," said Richard Fuller, president of the Blacksmith Institute.
"Unless the homes are fully decontaminated and the lead removed from the environment, the risk for continued poisoning and death remains," he said.
The Dutch arm of MSF (Doctors Without Borders) has set up an emergency center in Bukkuyum village, where around 50 children are being treated. It plans to expand to double that number by the end of the week and hopes to open a second facility soon.
"For the more severe cases, we see neurological symptoms that have been as severe as to affect the level of consciousness and cause convulsions, sadly followed by death for some of the smaller children," MSF co-ordinator Lauren Cooney told Reuters.
"The deaths we know of, nearly all of them were children under 5 as far as we are aware," she said, adding one village had lost a third of its children under 5 in a matter of weeks.
Cooney said some of the children who had been receiving treatment for the past week were starting to show signs of improvement. Breast-feeding mothers were also being treated as contamination could be passed through their milk.
"One child who had a lot of convulsions and hadn't really spoken for more than a week ... spoke to his mother for the first time. Another little girl who had some muscle weakness is walking again," Cooney said.
"But I don't want to exaggerate, we still have some children that are seriously unwell and it remains to be seen how they will do with treatment. Sadly it seems likely some will be left with permanent damage."
The Blacksmith Institute has brought in two X-ray fluoroscopes -- machines that look like giant hairdryers -- to detect concentrations of metals in the ground. Toxic earth is dug up and removed before the pits are filled with sand.
Few of the residents in Sunke, Dareta, Tungar Magaji and other mud-brick villages in the poor, arid Sahel region on the southern fringe of the Sahara, have received much formal education. They are skeptical that mining killed their children.
"This problem has not begun with Dareta or the surrounding villages, it must be from elsewhere," said Yakubu Ibrahim, a 43-year-old Dareta resident.
"This is the only way I live. If this mining is no longer possible, what will I do?" he said.
Behind him, villagers warned their youths would turn to stealing cattle if they could no longer mine, saying there had been a rare robbery outside the village just the night before.
On the edge of the village, a plot is encircled with bamboo.
"This is where we bury the children we lost. It is an act of God," said Idriss Yahaya, 55.
It is a common response among the Muslim villagers trying to cope with the sudden death of so many children.
The high infant mortality rate was initially thought to have been caused by cerebral malaria, which can trigger some similar symptoms such as convulsions in small children.
It was only when an MSF team testing for meningitis in the region found high levels of heavy metal in the villagers' blood that the authorities were alerted.
For now, the emergency response is focused on containing the pollution and treating the sick. But educational materials are being prepared in the local Hausa language and aid workers say that in the longer term, only changing the villagers' behavior will prevent more children from being poisoned.
"This is a great source of livelihood for them and it's not uncommon in these sort of circumstances that people will deny that their activities are an issue," said Blacksmith's Fuller.
"There has to be a campaign of education and it has to include training so they don't lose the livelihood but can do it in a way that is safe for their children."
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Writing and additional reporting by Nick Tattersall, editing by Paul Taylor