The death of 23 persons in two Local Government Areas in Ondo State recently set the nation on edge as initial reports suggested that the illness that claimed their lives, and affected ten other persons, could be the deadly Ebola Virus Disease. Some other early reports had also said the casualties were victims of a spiritual attack by a local deity identified as Malokun, which allegedly punished them for violating its shrine.
It has, however, now been confirmed by medical authorities in the state that the victims, all males between the ages of 22 and 75 years, died following consumption of local gin that had traces of the toxic chemical, methanol. They had all suffered sudden onset of blurred vision, blindness, headache as well as loss of speech and consciousness, which led to death within 48 hours. The Ondo State Commissioner of Health, Dr. Dayo Adeyanju, has confirmed the clinical findings which linked the deaths to methanol-poisoning. A ban has now been clamped on the production, sale and consumption of local gin, locally known as ogogoro, in the state.
We commend the Federal Ministry of Health, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and international agencies which promptly deployed experts to support the Ondo State Ministry of Health in its rapid response to the medical emergency. The promptitude with which the matter was addressed helped to douse the tension and apprehension that the deaths generated all over the country.
The epidemiological findings that linked the deaths to the consumption of tainted local gin indicated that the could not be attributed to any infectious organism, whether bacterial or viral. It was also confirmed that the fatalities are not due to Ebola Virus Disease or pesticide poisoning as earlier insinuated. The situation is now under control as no new case of the illness has been reported for many days now, and there has been no other mortality. The Country Representative of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr. Rui Gama Vaz, has also affirmed that the global health agency did not issue any statement attributing the deaths to pesticide poisoning.
We applaud the Federal and Ondo State governments for quickly dispelling the rumour that the Ebola Disease was back in the country and taking steps to determine the actual cause of the deaths. They should now move further to determine the actual source of the contaminated drink and come up with definitive steps to prevent a recurrence.
Apart from banning the brewing of gin, the government should move fast to regulate the processes and environments for the preparation of food items in the state and the country at large. It is necessary to ensure cleanliness in all environments where foods and local drinks such as zobo, kunu and fura are prepared for sale to members of the public to avoid food poisoning. Local preparation of gin should now be brought under the purview of regulatory agencies such as the National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC). The proliferation of unregistered food and drinks, especially illicit gins, should be tackled. This is because chemical products are often introduced into these drinks by unscrupulous persons to achieve different purposes, with serious fatalities commonly reported in countries where they are produced outside the purview of regulatory agencies. Sadly, Nigeria has now joined the league of countries that have recently recorded mass deaths following consumption of tainted drinks.
Let the food and drug regulatory agency play the role expected of it in this situation. It should embark on enlightenment programmes to educate the public on the dangers of consuming unwholesome beverages and concoctions, especially ogogoro.
It is heartwarming that the Ondo State government has banned the production and consumption of ogogoro within its jurisdiction following the release of toxicology reports which affirmed its initial suspicion of methanol poisoning. The Health Commissioner also said that the state has reviewed its strategies and commenced enlightenment of the people on the prohibition of locally-made gin. The state will also embark on searches because of its belief that the batch of methanol-laced gin that caused the first set of deaths in Irele Local Government Area must have gone round. The commissioner explained that four of the latter cases occurred in Odigbo Local Government Area, with two of the victims dead.
The government appealed to the general public to desist from drinking local gin until the source of the contaminated gin and how methanol got into it are determined. Now that the production, sale and consumption of local gin have been banned in the state, let the order be strictly enforced in the interest of the people.