Toxic wheat flour kills 10 in Herat
HERAT, 20 April 2008 (IRIN) - At least 10 people
have died and 130 others are sick in western
Afghanistan because of a liver and stomach disease
which is widely believed to be caused by contaminated
wheat flour, according to Afghanistan's Ministry of
Public Health (MoPH).
Public health officials in the western province of
Herat say the disease might have been caused by a
toxic weed, locally called "charmak", which grows
alongside wheat and may have been mistakenly collected
and milled with locally harvested wheat. Charmak is
said to contain alkalis that impair the liver.
"Four out of the 10 deaths were children below 12
years of age, two were women and four were elderly
men," Gulam Saeed Rashid, head of the health
department in Herat Province, said.
"We have sent samples of the wheat flour outside
the country for technical tests in order to find out
whether the flour has been contaminated by any toxic
substance," Abdullah Fahim, a spokesman for the MoPH,
said, adding that a team of World Health Organization
(WHO) epidemiologists based in Geneva had been invited
to assess the situation.
Officials have also imposed a temporary ban on the
movement of wheat flour and other cereals from Heart's
Gulran District, where the outbreak occurred, to other
parts of the province.
Lack of treatment
Aziz Noorzai, head of Gulran's 20-bed hospital,
told IRIN that because doctors had so far been unable
to diagnose the disease, they had provided patients
only antibiotics and painkillers. "People are
frightened and seriously worried about their health
and safety," Noorzai added.
However, public health specialists in Kabul say the
disease is not communicable and the health ministry
assured that appropriate medicine would quickly be
made available as soon as the disease is diagnosed.
Ten patients, among them children and women, were
taken to the capital on 20 April for hospitalisation
and extended treatment, according to the MoPH.
With over 130 confirmed cases, local health
officials are concerned that the disease may have
affected many other rural inhabitants who do not have
easy access to health services.
Amid widespread health concerns, many families in
Herat have stopped eating locally produced wheat flour
and are demanding food aid, the administrator of
Gulran District, Gulam Faroq Majroh, told IRIN by
The Afghan Red Crescent Society and an Italian-led
Provincial Reconstruction Team have reportedly already
delivered several tonnes of food to vulnerable
families in Herat. Provincial officials said more
relief has been requested from UN agencies.
Dozens of people in Herat reportedly died from a
similar disease in the 1970s and it took the country
several months to curb a nationwide outbreak. A like
disease was also reported in November 2007 when two
children reportedly died from largely swollen stomachs
and liver problems.
Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a
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Humanitarian Affairs. IRIN is UN humanitarian news and
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the views of the United Nations or its agencies.
[This report does not necessarily
reflect the views of the United Nations]