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Death toll from Kenya illegal brew rises to 51

NAIROBI, Kenya (Reuters) - The number of people killed after drinking illegal spirits in the Kenyan capital Nairobi rose to 51 on Thursday, with many more losing their sight, police said.

Police spokesman Peter Kimanthi said the latest tally showed 51 people had died and another 174 people were in the hospital after consuming the illicit brew, known locally as chang'aa, on Tuesday.

Twelve women have been arrested for selling the spirit, although Kimanthi said police had not yet located its source.

"We think it was brewed at some place other than Nairobi," he said. "We are looking for that brewing place, wherever it is."

Kenyatta National Hospital was crammed with the victims of the brew on Thursday, many of them blind, some writhing in pain.

"I started vomiting in the morning and then I realized I could not see -- and then I heard the guy we were drinking with was dead," one victim said.

Over 20 people died in the hospital on Wednesday, medical officials said, while more victims continued to arrive on Thursday morning from slum areas all over the capital.

One man died after staggering from the taxi taking him to the hospital, the Daily Nation reported.

"The driver, unable to claim his fare, took the man's shoes instead," the paper said.

Lethal brew thought to contain methanol

Nairobi's slums are packed with shebeens -- illegal drinking parlours mainly run by elderly widows who compete for customers with the intensity of their brew.

But problems arise when pure alcohol or other chemicals are added to the concoctions to give them an extra kick.

"We think it (the fatal brew) contained methanol, which is outlawed in this country -- it is a poison," Dr. Richard Muga, director of medical services in Kenya's health ministry, told Reuters.

"If you take it, the first thing that happens is it compromises your respiratory system . . . you go blind, and then you die in six to eight hours."

There have been several other instances of mass deaths from consumption of laced chang'aa in recent years, and newspapers urged the government to clamp down on the industry, or at least legalize and monitor it.

"It is significant that though these brews are drunk in the open, most provincial administrators and police officers have been turning a blind eye to the menace," the Daily Nation said in an editorial.

"The only solution to this menace is to allow the brewing and consumption of traditional liquors . . . and to insist that the drinks be brewed in controlled environments so that their quality can be constantly monitored," it said.

Traditional spirits are very popular in Kenya because they are powerful and cheap, although they were officially banned in the 1970s.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.



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