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Deaths blamed on methanol

Wednesday May 7 2014

A compound with beer bottle boxes in Ruai, Nairobi. The deaths have been blamed on methanol in the drinks. PHOTO | DENISH OCHIENG

A compound with beer bottle boxes in Ruai, Nairobi. The deaths have been blamed on methanol in the drinks. PHOTO | DENISH OCHIENG NATION MEDIA GROUP

JOY WANJA MURAYA
By JOY WANJA MURAYA
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Seventy six Kenyans are believed to be dead and another 181 admitted to hospital after taking an industrial chemical, methanol.

After testing some samples of the drinks that have devastated six counties, government scientists discovered that a sample from Makueni, where 16 people have died with 75 still in hospital, was 100 per cent methanol. A sample from the Embu drink was 70 per cent methanol.

Methanol, used in manufacturing as a solvent, can get people drunk, but it is a deadly poison.

The government experts want to test all samples and carry out postmortems before conclusively establishing the cause of death.

METHANOL CONTENT

Health Cabinet Secretary James said: “The Makueni sample under the brand name “Countryman” had 100 per cent methanol content against 0 per cent normal requirement while the one from Embu had 70 per cent of the poison. We want to be certain that all the samples have been analysed. We shall expect the law enforcement agencies to take further action.”

According to Mr Macharia, five bottles of “Countryman” from Makueni contained methanol, which is never used in the manufacture of alcoholic beverages.

Scientists at the Government Chemist said their findings are not conclusive because they are yet to receive samples from all the affected areas.

Methanol is a type of alcohol used in industries, but which is unfit for human consumption.

One of the 10 patients admitted to Kenyatta National Hospital is in a coma three days after patrons drank the deadly liquor in six counties.

KNH Chief Pharmacist Tom Menge yesterday said: “We suspect the patients consumed alcohol that could have been adulterated with methanol because they complained of abdominal pain and blurred vision while others lost their sight or went into a coma.”

Dr Menge is also a toxicologist, a scientist who studies the nature and effects of poisons and their treatment, and said alcohol poisoning can be reversed if a patient is taken to a health facility and the correct antidote given.

“An antidote of ethanol is given to neutralise the effect of poisoning, and this could prevent loss of sight and other adverse effects to internal organs like the liver if it had not already happened,” he said.

The patients at Kenyatta had acute poisoning, meaning they had taken large doses of poison.

Dr Menge told the Nation that patients admitted to the referral hospital presented with signs of acute “shortness of breath, dilation of pupils and blurred vision, convulsions, dizziness, severe abdominal pain and vomiting are some of the signs of methanol poisoning.”

Methanol is so poisonous that a teaspoon of the chemical in its pure form is enough to burn the optic nerve and cause blindness. Three teaspoons are potentially fatal.

Public health experts warn that backyard distilleries using primitive processes might be making drinks with very lethal levels of methanol.

The National Authority for Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (Nacada) boss John Mututho said Kenyans have been socialised to believe that they cannot have fun without alcohol.

“An alcoholic cannot help taking alcohol... If they are rehabilitated, then you reduce the demand for alcohol,” Mr Mututho, whose favourite drink is milk, said.

He proposed what he called “mass rehabilitation” where alcoholics countrywide can be brought under one roof and professional counsellors called in to take them through a 90-day recovery programme.

After this, he proposes enrolling them into the National Youth Service for three months, where they will get a sense of discipline. “Afterwards, give them a job, or teach them a skill that will help them to generate income,” he said.

WHAT MAKES THE CHEMICAL HARMFUL

  • Methanol is converted in into formic acid in the body.
  • The earliest signs of methanol poisoning can be hard to distinguish from the normal effects of alcohol.
  • Within an hour you can develop mild symptoms similar to alcohol intoxication, which includes nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.
  • After 12 to 24 hours, one may get a splitting headache and blurred vision, which may later lead to loss of sight.
  • If not attended to at a health centre, abdominal pains develop.
  • The liver is later damaged and kidney failure follows.
  • Problems with your heart and circulation are experienced. Nerve and brain damage occur before a person goes into a coma.
  • This eventually leads to death.