Sierra Leone: Alie, two-years-old, has already fallen victim to lye.

Alie is just two-years-old and has already fallen victim to the lye that his aunt uses to make cosmetic products at home.

Mistaking the liquid in the bottle for ordinary water, Alie grabbed it and drank it all in one gulp. Now, due to his accident, he is only able to eat thanks to the gastrostomy we gave him.

We are in Goderich, on the western outskirts of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Here, as elsewhere in the country, lye is a fixture of the homemade soap and cosmetics industry – and a grave threat to children.

Alie’s family did not know what to do about his accident. To ease his pain, they gave him palm oil to drink.

“It was a terrible decision,” explain the health promoters at our hospital, “which only worsened his condition. Further proof of the lack of awareness of this problem in the country.”

On the advice of a local doctor, Alie’s family brought their son to our Surgical Centre in Goderich, where we performed a gastrostomy on him, making an opening in his stomach through which to nourish him.

He cannot swallow anything, “not even a drop of water. It’s at the point where, when he’s thirsty, he rinses his mouth with a little water then spits it back out.” Thanks to the quantity of lye he drank, Alie’s oesophagus has closed up completely.

His only means of nourishment now is the thin tube travelling directly to his stomach. With the help of our health promoters, his parents are learning how to make and feed him the kind of soft meals that make up his new diet.

Manufacturing and selling bars of homemade soap makes a big difference to the meagre incomes of huge numbers of families, but it also poses a great threat to their children’s future. That is why our teams make a constant effort to teach people about the serious risks of swallowing lye. Health promotion is a fundamental part of our work and prevention is the first step towards awareness.


The activities at the Surgical Centre in Goderich are funded by the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation



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