Poisonous homebrew kills at least 80 people

A man stoking the fire of a distillery that makes potentially fatal homebrew.
Photo / AFP
A man stoking the fire of a distillery that makes potentially fatal homebrew. Photo / AFP

At least 80 people have died in Kenya and dozens more have been blinded or fallen ill after drinking a poisonous homebrew thought to have been laced with industrial chemicals.

Kenya's National Disaster Operation Centre said in a statement that 80 people had been killed in four districts, updating earlier tolls as the number of victims continues to climb.

Hospital sources said dozens more were receiving treatment.

Some woke up blind after sleeping off the drink, local media reported, while others lost their sight more slowly. Some victims complained of acute stomach pain, blurred vision and general weakness.

One man in hospital recounted his symptoms started with what felt like a prolonged and intense hangover, with a pounding headache. But his sight then became blurred, and by the time he was interviewed, he could no longer see anything.

He told local media that if he survived he would give up drink for good.

"What we are trying to establish is the origin of this brew," police spokeswoman Zipporah Mboroki said.

"Investigations are under way and samples will be taken to ascertain where and how it was prepared."

It is not clear if a single brew is responsible for all the deaths, but victims have come from towns both close to the capital Nairobi as well as in the centre and east of the country.

In some areas the alcohol was bought from licensed bars, but in others it was sold on the street, officials said.

Deaths from toxic alcohol are relatively common in Kenya, with similar cases making the headlines every year.

Locally-distilled alcohol, usually made from fermented maize or sorghum, is popular among the poor, as it is a fraction of the price of commercial and legally made brews.

Some of the latest victims paid as little as US$0.30 (A$0.31) for the shot that landed them in hospital, according to local media.

Some unscrupulous manufacturers add methanol to the concoction - a chemical used for the manufacture of anti-freeze - in order to increase its alcohol content.

Some batches that have proved lethal in recent years have turned out to be pure methanol.

John Mututho, chief of Kenya's National Authority for Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse, said his agency was working with police to find the manufacturers and distribution network of the toxic brew.

"Action must be taken and people must take responsibility, police are not doing their job," he said.

"It is a disaster to lose such a high number of people, it is something which could have been stopped."

Kenya has strict laws banning the public consumption of alcohol during much of the day and the sale of alcohol at certain times of day.

However, alcohol laws are rarely enforced in poorer districts and widespread poverty means that illegal vendors have no problem finding clients despite the health risk.

- AFP

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