The first members of WHO's international team arrived in Abidjan this week to support the Ministry of Health in dealing with an environmental health emergency caused by toxic waste.
A clinical toxicologist has already arrived and will be joined today by an environmental health specialist.
A further technical specialist will join the team in a few days time. The WHO team will be assisting the WHO country office in several tasks, including:
- Coordinating response to the public health consequences of the crisis.
- Carrying out an initial risk assessment and proposing measures to prevent further exposure of the population to the chemicals, and working with partners to accelerate the removal of the waste
- Working on a clear messages for the general public to guide them on how to avoid exposure and when to seek medical help.
- Advising on the organization of medical care, including developing a clinical management protocol, and initiating basic epidemiological surveillance.
- Helping identify and deliver much-needed supplies for an overtaxed healthcare system.
The clinical toxicologist has been in the field, talking to physicians and patients to determine the extent and severity of poisoning. To date the symptoms reported have included nosebleeds, nausea and vomiting, headaches, skin lesions, eye irritation and respiratory symptoms. These are consistent with exposure to the chemicals known to be in the waste.
WHO is in regular contact with hospitals and health centres to evaluate the burden being placed upon the health care system by this emergency. In Cocody, on 11th of September alone, over 1000 people attended the teaching hospital for assessment and treatment. At Yopougon teaching hospital 600 people are attending daily, and at the Akouedo Health Centre, an average of 300 people are consulting daily, including many children and young infants. This is double the usual workload and almost all of the personnel of the hospitals and clinics have been diverted to receive these patients, such that regular consultations have all-but-ceased.
The overwhelming numbers of people seeking medical attention because of this chemical waste are severely disrupting medical services and have resulted in shortages of medicines. This has put a double burden on the already weak health system of Cote d'Ivoire. This crisis has shown that the country does not have the capacity to deal with such an emergency.
While over 15,000 people have sought medical care, and 6 deaths have been reported, WHO is not yet able to provide an accurate assessment of the number of people who have been made ill by exposure to the waste. One of WHO's priorities will be to put in place an epidemiological surveillance system to track any uncommon health events. The level of public anxiety continues to be high, and this also needs to be urgently addressed.
During the night of 19 August, a ship unloaded around 400 tonnes of petrochemical waste into a number of trucks that then dumped the waste at least 12 sites around the city of Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire (population - 5 million). This waste contained a mixture of petroleum distillates, hydrogen sulphide, mercaptans, phenolic compounds and sodium hydroxide. A few days later the local population started complaining of ill health and seeking medical help.
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