By Associated Press Writer
updated 6/8/2010 8:04:15 PM ET 2010-06-09T00:04:15

Doctors are struggling to save children stricken by lead poisoning — many of them blind, deaf and unable to walk — after poor herdsmen began illegally mining gold in an area of northern Nigeria with high concentrations of lead.

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More than 160 villagers have died and hundreds more have been sickened in the remote villages of Nigeria's Zamfara state, officials said Tuesday. The region is near the border with Niger, on the cusp of the Sahara Desert.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the agency's initial tests found extremely high levels of lead in the blood of adults and children, who are the most susceptible to the illness.

"The scope of the poisoning is unprecedented in CDC's work with lead poisoning worldwide," said agency spokeswoman Vivi Adams. "This is because of the severity of the poisoning, the number of fatalities, the large number of children and adults with symptomatic poisoning and the extent of the environmental contamination."

Nigerian officials asked for help last month from the CDC and other international agencies to help treat illnesses local authorities initially blamed on malaria.

Doctors Without Borders has set up a medical center for children in the area and hopes to open another in coming weeks, said Lauren Cooney, emergency coordinator for the agency, which is also known by its French name, Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Those most severely affected are children 5 and younger, she said.

"We had one little girl who is blind and deaf probably following a convulsion," Cooney said. "We have some of the children who have lost all of their motor skills."

Cooney said children came to the clinic with their mothers, who also receive treatment as lead can pass through their breast milk.

Local officials estimate about 300 people are sick with lead poisoning and fear the number of victims could increase as lead in the soil contaminates villages where the mining took place. Officials also are concerned that seasonal rains that have begun sweeping across the arid state could wash lead into water supplies and other villages.

High levels of lead exposure can damage the brain and nervous system, result in behavior and learning problems such as hyperactivity, or cause slow growth. Lead also can cause reproductive problems, high blood pressure, nervous disorders and memory problems in adults. In severe cases, it can lead to seizures, coma and death.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation with 150 million residents, is one of the leading crude oil suppliers to the United States. The West African nation also once supplied copper and other minerals to the world before oil took over as its top selling commodity. President Goodluck Jonathan recently inaugurated a new mineral processing facility partially funded by the Chinese government.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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