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(Gusau, Nigeria) – High-level Nigerian government participation is needed at an upcoming international conference to make progress in ending a lead poisoning epidemic among children in Zamfara State, Human Rights Watch said today.

The international conference, in Abuja, the capital, on May 9 and 10, 2012, will include representatives from the World Health Organization, bilateral donor agencies and nongovernmental organizations. It will focus on the mass lead poisoning in the northern Nigerian state of Zamfara, one of the worst such crises in modern history. More than 400 children have died there since March 2010 from lead exposure related to artisanal gold mining. Thousands of other children remain in ill-health and at risk of long-term disability or death.

“The Nigerian government needs to act now to help thousands of children in Zamfara exposed to lead who are at risk of death or long-term disability,” said Babatunde Olugboji, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should come to the conference ready to commit to concrete steps and a specific timeline to ensure that the rights of these children to health and to life are protected.”

The deaths, affecting children working in artisanal gold mines and those living in surrounding communities, stem from unusually high concentration of lead in the region’s soil. They have received international attention, but little concrete action on the ground by Nigeria’s federal government, Human Rights Watch said. While the Nigerian government has pledged to begin environmental remediation of lead-contaminated villages and support safer-mining initiatives, little has been done in the most severely affected areas.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), which helped organize the conference, has treated more than 2,500 children with high-lead blood levels. However, thousands more cannot be treated because they continue to be exposed to lead. For those children, treatment would be ineffective or could lead to even more serious medical problems.

“It has been more than two years since this epidemic began and the government needs to end the inaction and delay,” said Olugboji. “If Nigeria’s federal government steps forward, Zamfara could become a model of how lead poisoning can be effectively addressed, instead of an example of how hundreds of children’s lives were needlessly lost.”

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