A mysterious and highly fatal disease was described in Nigeria two weeks ago. The first wave of reports suggested major trouble: 24 cases, 18 of whom had died precipitously from neurologic collapse: confusion, blindness, coma, death. A more recent report put the dead at 23 with 10 alive and receiving treatment.
Given the short collective international memory for cataclysmic infectious diseases in the West African region, the WHO and the media ran in with fear and trembling. Tests for Ebola proved negative, as did sophisticated molecular tests for several other transmissible diseases. Yet the facts were brutal: sudden illness, high death rate, sketchy facts in the Nigerian state of Ondo, just east of Lagos, along the coast of the southern Atlantic.
Just as the story seemed ready to heat up and scare everyone in the public health community senseless, the WHO announced that the problem was not an infection at all, but rather a tragic exposure to a pesticide, some sort of weed killer likely spread across the fields and crops of the region.
With a collective exhalation of relief, attention moved on—to presidential elections and Bruce Jenner and most recently, the overwhelming tragedy of the Nepal earthquake.
But the story didn’t end, even though the world’s focus and new cases did. The pesticide story and WHO’s involvement seems to have faded out, replaced by local reporters finding very different explanations. The most common one is that the affected group—reportedly male teenagers though this most basic fact has not been corroborated—was sickened by drinking methanol.
Methanol: cheap moonshine, the type Eliot Ness went after with axes and a match during the Prohibition days when everyone was drinking unregulated back-yard hooch. methanol was easy to make, super-cheap, and easy to add to ethanol, a similar compound by the look of the word, but altogether different in the chemistry lab and in the human body. Plus who would complain about problems with an illegally purchased beverage?
This explanation makes sense: the fear of methanol poisoning became sufficiently strong during Prohibition that some have suggested the U.S. Government spiked local moonshine in order to deepen the fear and scare people off buying from the back of the neighbor’s flat-bottomed truck.
Plus the symptoms of the affected in Nigeria certainly resemble that of methanol—especially the blindness that is a particular feature of methanol poisoning. Once ingested, the body metabolizes methanol to a second substance directly toxic to the optic nerve, the critical wire that carries visual imagery from the eyeball to the brain. And methanol poisoning, though no longer at issue in the U.S., is sufficiently common in less developed countries to warrant a Wiki page devoted to the problem.
The story then seems like it might be one of itchy bored kids looking for a cheap thrill and buying (or making) something alcoholic to drink. Or not—there is a reason to consider that the Nigerian government, eager to appear modern by embracing current approaches to crop optimization, may have wanted to deep-six the weed-killer story. After all, such a tale, so similar to a recent family tragedy involving a Baltimore family vacationing in the U.S. Virgin Islands exposed to toxic bug-spray might create a regulatory need, a government step to protect its people.
After all, Nigeria has the First World ambitions of an emerging country. It has the largest economy in Africa, moving past South Africa this year, and its largest population. Its oil, gas, and mineral reserves are among the greatest in the world. Yet, by GNP per capita, it is one of the world’s 20 poorest countries. Its struggles to grow and yet remain safe mean that the familiar tension between unfettered capitalism and the need for costly regulation to protect citizens will be at its most acute.
Finally, according to some, the victims weren’t infected or poisoned. Their view is that the victims were stuck down in divine retribution for ransacking a shrine to one of the local deities, Malokun. As the economy grows voraciously all around them, farming becomes an agribusiness and the life of their childhood slowly disappears, the comforts of the past seem ever more attractive. In this way, the weed-killer, methanol, and Malokun explanations are all the same thing: a cautionary tale of overreaching, moving too fast, ignoring steady tradition for the transient pleasures of the now.