The condition of 10-month-old Hariharan, who was admitted to Government Children’s Hospital on June 1 with lead poisoning, is serious.
Doctors said his brain function has been affected. Though the diagnosis has been made, doctors have to determine the lead levels in his blood before they can administer an antidote.
Lead poisoning is difficult to identify, diagnose and treat, said paediatrician S. Thangavelu, who retired from the hospital three years ago. He recalled identifying only four cases since the late 1990s. “Doctors are not trained to suspect lead poisoning and there is no centre in the city to test blood lead levels,” he said.
In the late 90s, an unconscious child was brought to the hospital with complaints of episodes of vomiting. Doctors initially diagnosed it as meningitis (brain fever) and the child was treated for it.
When the child returned the following year though, doctors at the hospital, with the help of faculty from IIT-Madras, diagnosed lead poisoning but could not confirm the diagnosis as there was no way to test blood samples, Dr. Thangavelu said.
Forensic medicine experts at Government Stanley Hospital and professors of toxicology at Madras Medical College said they had rarely come across cases of lead poisoning, even in adults. The poisoning occurs over a period of time and patients remain asymptomatic. Affected persons come in with a range of complaints, making it difficult to diagnose the cause.
Doctors said that over a period of time lead deposits in the bones, and an x-ray can pick this up. In Hariharan’s case, it was the radiologist who identified the lead deposits.
“Identifying lead deposits is difficult. Also, we need to know the amount of lead in the blood before an antidote can be given. But even once the diagnosis is made, drugs are not easily available,” Dr. Thangavelu said.
According to Kalpana Balakrishnan, a researcher in industrial hygiene with Sri Ramachandra University, the testing facility in Chennai is limited to a “research platform” as the kits are used for a specific purpose. “However, there are portable finger-prick kits available abroad that give out results instantly. These kits need to be imported from Boston and are well-validated for diagnosing lead poisoning,” she says.
St. John’s National Academy of Health Sciences and National Referral Centre for Lead Poisoning in India in Bangalore, has been a pioneer in the research of the ill-effects of lead in children. The academy has conducted several studies and was instrumental in introducing unleaded paints for children’s play areas in that city.
In one recent study, the academy found that 35 per cent of children presented with higher than permissible levels of lead, which was attributed to exposure to painted toys and leaded paint in school buildings.
Even as Hariharan is being treated for his symptoms, doctors at the hospital have asked his parents to bring in toys that the child had been playing with. Hariharan’s family is from Tiruttani.
Experts say even doctors are not trained to suspect this type of poisoning
Devices to diagnose it, drugs to treat it are not easily available