Lead is a potent neurotoxin that the body stores over a lifetime. It can severely affect the mental and physical functioning of children and the health of adults. The burden on health care systems and loss of human potential also affects the economic development of nations. Despite clear evidence of harm, many countries do not conduct active surveillance of lead poisoning, and just 35% of countries have legally binding limits on lead in paint.
In Peru, lead is a commonly mined metal, and the government has been forced to declare a “health state of emergency” in districts where dangerously high levels of lead and other heavy metals are found in water or soil. Vital Strategies launched an initiative in 2018 to provide technical assistance and financial resources to the Peruvian Ministry of Health to go beyond crisis response and to support ongoing lead poisoning surveillance, raise public awareness, modernize clinical management of lead poisoning, and improve regulation of lead in consumer products.
The program has expanded to Indonesia, where Vital Strategies is partnering with UNICEF and Pure Earth to update the nation’s clinical guidance for lead exposure in children and conduct a comprehensive assessment of lead policies and stakeholders, and to India and the Philippines where Vital Strategies is launching representative lead exposure surveillance programs with the governments.
In late 2020, we completed the design of a childhood lead surveillance program to better understand how and where Peruvian children are exposed to lead. Nurses and community health workers across eight regions of Peru now have the training and resources to begin screening and counseling over 1,000 children under the age of five. We also worked with Peru’s Directorate of Environmental Health and Food Safety to reimagine, revise, and adopt clinical guidance for management and prevention of lead exposure in children and pregnant women. The updated guidance allows healthcare professionals to provide clinical and exposure avoidance advice that is tailored to the likelihood of exposure, rather than depend on scarce testing resources. Together, these efforts will help to reduce the number of exposed and acutely poisoned children.
In 2021, we received a combined $1.5M in funding from UNICEF Indonesia and from PureEarth and the GiveWell Foundation to expand the organization’s childhood lead poisoning prevention efforts in several Asian countries. The new projects are focusing on addressing important sources of exposure in Indonesia, including used lead acid battery (ULAB) recycling and scaling up biomonitoring surveillance efforts in two Indian states and the Philippines, where it is believed that the most common source of lead exposure is from adulterated spices and other consumer products.