Odontol, the ‘poor man’s liquor’, can be deadly in Cameroon
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At least 27 people died recently in eastern Cameroon after consuming odontol, a toxic homemade alcohol, while approximately 40 more are still recovering in hospital. Local authorities have taken matters into their own hands by banning the substance. But its popularity among locals coupled with its importance to the local economy makes it doubtful that such measures will be effective.
Odontol has been locally produced for decades in the country, mostly in eastern, southern and central Cameroon. The artisanal liquor can be made from palm wine, corn, sugar or even plantains. The ingredients are first left to ferment for several days before the blend is distilled, leaving a mixture containing around 50 percent alcohol.
The problem is that odontol production is largely unregulated and its quality can vary greatly. Although deaths as a direct consequence of the beverage remain rare, its consumers frequently end up sick after consuming it. And between November 10 and 16, at least 27 people died in Mindourou, Abong-Mbang, and Doumé, the three districts located within the wider administrative region of Haut-Hyong. News of the deaths has led local authorities to ban the production, selling, and consumption of the odontol, which until now has been tolerated not only in the region but also across the rest of the country. Security forces have since been seizing stocks of odontol. In Abong-Mbang and Mindourou, two people have been detained, according to an official from the prefecture.
"By producing and selling this alcohol, families can support themselves"Arsene Rodric Zoagmo lives in Yaoundé, but he's originally from Abong-Mbang. Two of his family members died after drinking odontol.
My uncle and his wife died on November 10. They had been drinking odontol the day before. I know several people still recovering in hospital in the Abong-Mbang district. I've been told that they had bought containers of alcohol from a travelling salesman who wasn't from the same village. Those still in hospital say that it tasted and smelled different from normal.
I don't think that banning it is the right thing to do. It's a traditional drink. It's going to be impossible to ban the production and consumption of it overnight.
In our villages, lots of families make it to earn money because they have no other source of income. They live in rural areas cut off from the outside world where unemployment rates are very high. By selling the alcohol, they can support themselves and can afford to send their children to school. I think that's why the authorities tolerated its production up until now.
"Everyone drinks it because it’s so cheap"
Lots of people drink odontol because it's a bit like gin, and far cheaper than beer or whiskey. One litre costs between 1,000 to 1,200 CFA francs [1.50 to 1.80 euros]. The problem is that some people drink way too much. Alcoholism is rampant in the village that I come from [Editor's note: According to our Observers, the Baka people -- an ethnic group inhabiting the rainforests of southwest Cameroon -- suffer in particular from high levels of alcoholism]. I think it would be more effective to spread public awareness about the dangers of drinking the liquor, rather than outright banning it.
"This is a real public health issue, linked to rising levels of poverty in the countryside"That's a point of view largely shared by Roger Etoa, president of the network of doctors of Cameroon (REMEDIC). He also comes from eastern Cameroon.
Odontol is the 'poor man's drink'. Some families make more money from selling it than they do from farming. Drinking it lets them temporarily forget their problems. For the last two decades, everyone has been drinking it - women, young people, even children - whereas before, it was usually just men. It's a real public health issue.
I don't believe that banning the alcohol will work. The overconsumption of odontol is a direct result of the rising levels of poverty in the countryside. The state needs to come up with an urgent economic action plan to bring growth back to these areas, many of which have been devastated by the rural exodus towards the cities.
The second deputy of the Haut-Nyong prefecture has himself admitted that it isn't possible to "have a police officer guarding every citizen," adding "over the last few days we have therefore begun to spread awareness of the dangers of this alcohol by talking to the traditional tribal chiefs and mayors."
He says that an investigation has been opened by the police and local health authorities. Samples have also been taken from the bodies of the deceased and those who have fallen ill in order to be analysed in Yaoundé.
Was the odontol contaminated by pesticides or did it contain too much methanol?
It's still a mystery as to why 27 people died after drinking odontol. So far, two lines of enquiry have been put forward, linked to the way the alcohol is both stored and produced, as Roger Etoa, president of REMEDIC, explains:
It's possible that pesticides were actually inside the containers of alcohol. Pesticides are used very frequently in the area, particularly to cultivate cocoa, and the containers used to store them are often reused to store water and alcohol. But they need to be cleaned with more than just soap to remove the pesticides.
Another possible reason is that the odontol had been tampered with. All alcohols contain ethanol, but maybe this alcohol contained abnormally high levels of methanol -- an extremely toxic substance.
Once ingested, methanol can poison the central nervous system. Once it's metabolised in the liver, it can turn into acid, which can cause levels of acid in the blood to go up - a condition called metabolic acidosis - and can even lead to blindness, by destroying the optic nerve.
Methanol can find its way into homemade odontol by mistake, but it can also be added deliberately. Joseph Essono is director of Abong-Mbang's district hospital, where dozens of patients who drunk the alcohol are still recovering.
When odontol is distilled, theoretically the temperature needs to be stabilised at around 65 degrees in order to obtain ethanol. But the alcohol is homemade, so that complicates things. The temperatures tend to be higher, producing methanol instead of ethanol, even unintentionally.
Some people even deliberately add methanol in odontol that has alreadu been produced, because methanol is cheap and easy to find. They're aiming to produce large quantities of alcohol very cheaply.
In both situations, what you end up with is a very toxic drink. In hospital, many people who turned up were suffering from nausea, migraines, dizziness, sleeping problems and blurred vision. Some died barely hours after drinking it, others died a few days later. The latter were the victims of metabolic acidosis.