Background: In 2010, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) investigated reports of high mortality in young children in Zamfara State, Nigeria, leading to confirmation of villages with widespread acute severe lead poisoning. In a retrospective analysis, we aimed to determine venous blood lead level (VBLL) thresholds and risk factors for encephalopathy using MSF programmatic data from the first year of the outbreak response.
Methods and findings: We included children aged ≤5 years with VBLL ≥45 µg/dL before any chelation and recorded neurological status. Odds ratios (OR) for neurological features were estimated; the final model was adjusted for age and baseline VBLL, using random effects for village of residence. 972 children met inclusion criteria: 885 (91%) had no neurological features; 34 (4%) had severe features; 47 (5%) had reported recent seizures; and six (1%) had other neurological abnormalities. The geometric mean VBLLs for all groups with neurological features were >100 µg/dL vs 65.9 µg/dL for those without neurological features. The adjusted OR for neurological features increased with increasing VBLL: from 2.75, 95%CI 1.27-5.98 (80-99.9 µg/dL) to 22.95, 95%CI 10.54-49.96 (≥120 µg/dL). Neurological features were associated with younger age (OR 4.77 [95% CI 2.50-9.11] for 1-<2 years and 2.69 [95%CI 1.15-6.26] for 2-<3 years, both vs 3-5 years). Severe neurological features were seen at VBLL <105 µg/dL only in those with malaria.
Interpretation: Increasing VBLL (from ≥80 µg/dL) and age 1-<3 years were strongly associated with neurological features; in those tested for malaria, a positive test was also strongly associated. These factors will help clinicians managing children with lead poisoning in prioritising therapy and developing chelation protocols.