Tox in the news: 72 die in Mozambique from poisoned beer

January 16, 2015, 1:03 am

Mozambique

Mozambique

In a very strange story that’s been developing all week, the Washington Post reported that at least 72 people died in Mozambique after consuming poisoned beer offered at a funeral gathering. Details are scarce and the poison (or poisons) has not yet been identified, but a limited clinical scenario can be gleaned from reading news coverage.

Apparently, the funeral was an all-day affair. The beer was brewed in and served from a 210 liter container. People who drank the beer only in the morning were not affected. However, those who had the beer in the afternoon were sick by the next morning, with diarrhea and muscle pain. Among the 72 fatalities was Olivia Olocane, the woman who provided the beer for the funeral.

Originally,  residents and some authorities thought that the poison used was “crocodile bile” (“nduru”), a substance known in local lore to be extremely toxic, useful for mass poisonings and use as an arrow poison. The possible toxicity of “nduru” has been investigated in the medical literature in a 1984 article by Professor N.Z. Nyazema in the Central Africa Journal of Medicine. In that paper Dr. Nyazema points out:

It is widely believed that the bile from the gall bladder of a crocodile is very poisonous. The bile nduru is used as poison which is added to beer or stiff porridge, sadza, of an unsuspecting victim. It is not easy to buy this poison neither is it easy for anyone to kill a crocodile solely for the purpose of obtaining the bile. But with a good fee one can obtain some of the poison from a special n’anga At times the n’anga may undertake to poison the victim thus adding mystery to the ingredients of the poison. It is reported that the poisoning occurs at special occasions like beer drinking. The nduru is said to be introduced into the beer by dipping the finger or nail where a small amount is placed. This will suffice for the purpose. The unfortunate victim is supposed to die within 24 hours. The poison is supposed to manifest itself when the patient develops pains mainly in the abdomen.

By far the best coverage of this event has been from David Kroll (@davidkroll), who blogs about pharmacology and health care for forbes.com. In a superbly reported blog post, Kroll took the trouble of tracking down Dr. Nyazema, who now works in South Africa at the University of Limpopo. Dr. Nyazema told Kroll that the notion crocodile bile caused the deaths was “a lot of nonsense . . . [c]rocodile bile is not poisonous whatsoever.”

In his studies on crocodile bile from 3 decades ago, Dr. Nyazema fed it to mice without producing any toxicity whatsoever. In addition, as he pointed out to Kroll, some populations use crocodile bile as an aphrodisiac, contradicting its reputation for extreme toxicity.

Nazema thinks the poison used was more probably a cardiac glycoside (foxglove and other similar plants are abundant in that area of Africa) or an organophosphate pesticide. Whatever it turns out to have been, it must have been extremely potent to fatally poison 72 people she mixed in a 210 liter vat. Unfortunately, that vat — which would have been a crucial clue in this tragedy — seems to have disappeared.

[Map of Mozambique from wikipedia.org]

Comments are closed.