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Some food preservatives are deadly when used too much

4 April 2009 1,307 views No Comment

After enjoying a good meal of chips and chicken, young Atuha almost lost her life as doctors struggled to get save her life after it was confirmed that she ate a chemical used to preserve foods. Writes Eunice Rukundo

A single meal of chips and chicken almost ended their second-born daughter’s life. And now, it has changed their way of life. Today, when they desire chips and fried chicken or fruit juice, they buy fresh items from Nakasero Market and prepare the meal at home.

The couple is constantly kept in check by the fact that eight-year-old Praxedes Atuha would be history if her mother, Ms Betty Ngabirano, had not been a doctor.

December 30, 2008 marked the beginning of this lifestyle change. It was the day before the family planned to live for the village to begin their New Year. In a last-minute preparation frenzy, the parents and their three children passed by a salon to have Atuha’s hair braided for the holiday.

Mr Emmanuel Ngabirano recalls that at about 11:30am, his wife bought the children packed juice and, on their way home, the family passed by Mr Tasty Take-away at Lugogo Mall where they bought packs of chips and chicken to be consumed later.

“We dropped the children off at about 3pm and went back to do more shopping. When we returned at about 9pm, Praxedes met us at the gate and said ‘Mummy, Daddy; me and Malcolm have vomited’,” recounts Mr Ngabirano.

The two children had also developed heavy diarrhoea after eating. The oldest girl and her grandmother, who had also eaten the food, had developed stomach upsets. While the younger brother took milk and vomited some more, Atuha refused to eat anything else.

“When the mother called her over, she noticed our daughter was generally pale and weak and her palms, tongue and mouth were blue, to which she exclaimed ‘This child is very sick’,” narrates Mr Ngabirano.

At African Air Rescue (AAR) hospital where the family is insured, the doctor declared the child fine and only needing some rest. Ms Ngabirano, however, insisted she needed a second opinion because every symptom indicated that the child was very sick.

The doctor referred them to the emergency section where Atuha was instantly diagnosed with low oxygen levels hence the blue colour.
“She had about 80 per cent oxygen instead of the normal about 96 per cent and was instantly put on oxygen. The body cells, however, were not absorbing it so her oxygen levels hardly improved,” recalls Mr Ngabirano.

The next day at Kololo Hospital, it was concluded that Atuha had taken poison which was wrapped around the blood cells and was not only prohibiting oxygen absorption but was also being circulated around the body. No one could identify which poison she had taken.

“Everything at home that could have been suspect like the rodent pellets, doom powder, paraffin was ruled out as the cause of the poisoning. As my daughter’s oxygen levels lowered to about 65 per cent, she started to hallucinate and make incoherent statements like, ‘Dad your legs are cut off’ or react violently when I tried to hold her. By now we were totally confused and my wife was beginning to break down,” recounts Mr Ngabirano.

On the third day, medics at Kololo Hospital, maybe on realising they couldn’t help, referred them to Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi, which would cost them about Shs50 million yet their insurance with AAR was only operational within the country.

“We didn’t have that money and we feared that even if we did, she would probably be dead by the time we got there and have doctors do their tests,” said Mr Ngabirano.

But a doctor at AAR suggested they check with a government chemist who worked on corpses. Being the beginning of the year though, the chemist was away from work and so were his workmates.

“In fact they had switched off the machines and it would take about four hours to restart and get them functioning again! He, however, agreed to come and help and the first thing he confirmed by just looking at the blood was that it was poisoned,” says Mr Ngabirano.
The chemist, Mr Andrew Matovu, inquired what the child had eaten on that day besides the likely poisonous substances at their home.

After listening and checking the blood, he found the poisoning had originated from what no one had hitherto suspected; the food.
Mr Matovu says he found sodium nitrite in her blood, a toxin used to preserve meat.

“The toxin is not dangerous and is a recommended meat preservative the world over but could get harmful if used in excessive doses. When it gets toxic, it kills by prohibiting oxygen absorption into the blood cells and in her case, the brain was beginning to lack enough oxygen hence the hallucinations,” he explains.

Mr Matovu adds that the other children may have been lucky because by eating more food which they vomited, they may have expelled most of the toxin.

“Whether and when it becomes harmful depends on the amounts in the food and on the consumer’s genetic make-up. The young and old are more susceptible, but there is also the possibility that the particular piece of meat she ate had the largest amounts of the toxin,” he says.

It was the first case of sodium nitrite intoxication from meat that Matovu, who studied and trained in London before starting work here in 2004, had seen.

The only antidote for the toxin according to him is Methylene Blue, which every country that uses the toxin should have in store in case of such emergencies.

But as he had suspected, it was nowhere in the country and just like the other hospitals had failed to identify the toxin, the antidote was unheard of in most pharmacies and hospitals.

“He had warned us of the possibility of not finding anyone that knows it actually since there are no persons trained in poison handling in the country. In fact there isn’t even a poison control/information centre!” says Mr Ngabirano. In a few hours of traversing the country, their fears were confirmed; the nearest place that Methylene Blue could be found was Nairobi.

With help from friends in Nairobi, Ngabirano was able to secure the antidote. But even then, the doctors here had to first take time off to read and research on how to administer it.

“One doctor found we had to check for a particular genetic condition before administering the drug. But when we went to AAR, where we had done all medical tests on Praxedes at about six months, we were told her medical records had not been stored. We had to redo the tests.”
Luckily, she was eligible for the antidote and on the seventh day after that meal of chips and chicken, doctors at Mulago – where she was now admitted in the Intensive Care Unit – were with guidance from the chemist able to administer the methylene blue.

Today, Atuha is her bubbly self again and the chemist reassures that there may not have been any permanent damage especially since she didn’t go into a coma.

Mr Ngabirano is, however, yet to be convinced and this is the one fear that keeps the nightmare alive. Meanwhile, he has decided to take it upon himself to solicit for support and start up a poison control/information centre.

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