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Lead, arsenic in Burmese medicine

3rd April 2009

Burmese children in the United States who took two commonly used household medications from Burma were found to have high levels of lead and arsenic in their blood, a US-based health organisation said.

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The poisoning was discovered in 32 Burmese refugee children who were resettled in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in the United States from refugee camps in Thailand.

"All refugees are tested when they come into the country for several things," said Loraine Hagerty, special projects manager of the St Joseph Community Health Foundation, which has been helping the Fort Wayne refugees.

"It was found that there were a number of Burmese refugee children who had tested positive for lead poisoning," said Hagerty, whose organisation works closely with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to run the tests.

"And when additional tests were conducted on their arrival in Indiana, we found more instances of lead poisoning amongst the Burmese refugee children," she added.

Indiana-based Burmese doctor Khin Mar Oo said follow-up tests were currently under way on the affected children.

Homes surveyed

"When tests were conducted by the schools, they found that the lead levels in the Burmese refugee children were quite high," Khin Mar Oo, who runs an organisation helping Burmese refugees in Fort Wayne, said.

"At first it was thought that these lead levels were brought about during their stay on the Thai-Burma border," she said.

"But then they found that ... not only were the lead levels high in the Burmese refugee children who had come from Thailand, but also in some of the refugee children born in the US"

Health-care workers and medical experts from the CDC visited the homes of the affected children in early February to look for clues in their environment, diet, and medications.

Tests on building materials and drinking water yielded no evidence of lead or arsenic, so experts began questioning the children about their daily routines, Hagerty said.

"We actually went from door to door and asked them a lot of questions about the products that they use in their homes, habits that their children have, what they drink and eat and what kinds of medication they took, taking samples of their medication and testing them at the laboratories," she said.

Children's medicine pinpointed

The source of the lead and arsenic was finally narrowed down to two types of Burmese medicine called "Daw Tway" and "Daw Kyin” medicines, specifically aimed at children. The two medicines are commonly used for digestive ailments in rural households all over Burma.

An official who answered the phone in the national food and drug administration of Burma's health ministry said he was unaware of the problem.

"[We] did not pass those medicines," he said. "Maybe it went through the department of indigenous medicines."

U Tin Nyunt, director general of Burma's department of indigenous medicines, said the remedies could have come out before 2007.

"I don’t think these medicines are what we have on the market today," he said.

"They are most likely to be medicines from earlier times ... We have machines that can test heavy metals in medicines, and if they are found in medicines we will revoke the production license of the producer," he said.

'No announcements' heard

But he said he had been unable to crack down on substandard medications produced before he took office.

"Since I took over responsibility here we have absolutely not permitted this at all," he said. "We are doing all of this within the policies and regulations."

The packaging on the two medicines found among the Burmese refugees in Indiana was marked September 2007.

A housewife based in the former capital, Rangoon, said she had seen no media reports concerning these medicines.

"People living in rural areas, especially the parents of children, are still using these medicines," she said. "They are still selling these medicines."

Cheap alternative

"There have been no announcements with regard to these medicines. When I heard this, I was quite alarmed because the children depend on these medicines," she said.

These traditional remedies, at about 50 kyat (a few US cents), were far cheaper than a visit to a clinic or hospital, which could run into thousands of kyat, she said.

A total of 12,000 children have been diagnosed with lead poisoning among refugee communities in the US states of Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, and Missouri, according to health sources.

The CDC is expected to release a detailed report next month on the reasons for the lead poisoning among US refugee families.

Common problem

Issues such as this are not uncommon among refugees, said Steve Weil, co-founder of the Virginia-based nonprofit Coalition for Environmentally Safe Communities.

"There are any number of these products," said Weil, whose organisation is working with Denver-based Mercy Housing to conduct workshops, funded by the US Health and Human Services department, aimed at educating US health and refugee workers about lead poisoning.

The last of three workshops is scheduled for 2 April in Indianapolis, he said.

Remedies originating abroad are often inconsistent in their lead content, with one batch containing toxic lead levels and another with little or none, Weil said.

Original reporting by Nyi Nyi and Kyaw Min Htun for RFA's Burmese service. Translated by Soe Thinn. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written and produced in English by Luisetta Mudie and Sarah Jackson-Han.

 

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