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.

Aid response

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 phone.

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. 

Source: Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a project the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. IRIN is UN humanitarian news and information service, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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