By Elizabeth Mwai
Inside a busy medical ward teeming with patients, a crate of beer is wheeled in. Rushing against time, medics pop off the tops, pour the beer into measured glasses and give patients to drink.
Strange, but as it turns out, they are fighting fire with fire. The patients were brought in after drinking alcoholic brews laced with methanol, an industrial chemical that causes blindness and death when consumed. In the wake of emergencies that have seen up to 19 people dead and several others blinded by such brews in Nyahururu and Ruiru, beers have come in handy in saving victims' lives.
Indeed, health experts say ordinary beers such as Tusker or Summit were used to bring down Yokozuna, the deadly drink consumed by Nyahururu revellers. Seven other people died in similar circumstances in Ruiru area. Deaths caused by drinking illicit brews are common as unlicensed brewers look to make more cash and lure customers with the most potent drink they can lay their hands on.
Now, doctors are advising that in addition to trying to induce a victim to vomit, you can also "treat" him by giving him beer while ensuring he does not get drunk in the process. The good news is that this form of treatment is cheap and beer is readily available.
So just what is contained in beer that makes it a lifesaver in such circumstances? One need only understand the delicate science at work when the human body absorbs beer and methanol. Michael Gichangi, the head of ophthalmic services in the health ministries, says beers contain a chemical known as ethanol, which counters the effects of methanol.
Dr Gichangi explains: "Methanol becomes dangerous when the body breaks it down into another chemical known as formic acid. This causes acidity, which disrupts the functioning of the body while damaging vital organs." However, it takes the body about 12 to 24 hours to break down methanol. Ethanol, however, is broken down much more quickly than its deadly cousin.
Gichangi says when ethanol is introduced, the breakdown of methanol is delayed as ethanol, which is digested faster than methanol, takes over, thus quickly reversing the damage.
"The body will shift its attention to breaking down ethanol, which is more competitive and easily absorbed into the system, hence sidelining methanol," he tells The Standard. This means the toxic substance will not be released into the body. If the victim is given more fluids, the methanol will be excreted from the body in form of urine.
So dangerous is methanol that consuming just 10ml or a tablespoon can cause blindness, while swallowing 30ml leads to death. "Victims die or lose their vision owing to delay in treatment because they assume their discomfort is caused by the drink or they are just having a hangover," adds Gichangi.
Doctors advise that in the first two hours after suspecting that one has swallowed methanol, those with him should try to induce vomiting, which helps to expel the poison from the body. "If this does not work, try taking a bottle or two of ordinary lager (beer) while monitoring how you or the patient feels, as you rush them to the hospital." Methanol is a form of alcohol, which is, however, not fit for human or animal consumption.
It is usually found in fuels and petroleum products, photocopying fluids, varnish and paint removers. Most incidents of methanol poisoning reported in the country occur through adulterated alcohol or through inhalation of fumes.
Its symptoms include abnormal behaviour, severe abdominal discomfort, severe headaches, coma, altered level of consciousness, blurred vision and temporary or permanent loss of sight.
Loss of sight may remain irreversible despite treatment. Severe poisoning causes death. However, hospitals do not stock alcohol in hospitals since such cases are rare. But where it is readily available, it is brought into the hospital when such patients are brought in.Last Edited: Tue 20th September 2011 at 07:38:09 AM