Approximately 28 workers have been diagnosed with manganism, a debilitating condition resulting from prolonged exposure to manganese. This affliction has left these former SAFAL employees grappling with serious health challenges.

Manganese disease symptoms are similar to those of Parkinson’s disease. They include trembling, stiffness, slow motor movement and potentially-severe depression, anxiety and hostility.

The affected individuals are earnestly appealing to the government for a fair and equitable distribution of compensation when the Workers' Compensation Fund Control Board (WCFCB) initiates the compensation process.

During an interview with MakanDay, ten patients who had obtained their final medical reports from the University Teaching Hospital (UTH), as per the WCFCB 's instructions for compensation eligibility were disheartened to find irregularities in the documents. While some reports from UTH - the country’s highest referral hospital were marked as "100 percent level of disablement", others lacked any percentage indication.

This inconsistency in the medical reports is a cause for significant concern among the affected individuals. They say it not only fails to provide an accurate representation of the true extent of the patients' medical conditions but also poses a potential hurdle in the compensation process.

The fear that the categorisation of some reports as "100 percent" could imply severe conditions deserving of appropriate compensation, while reports without a specified percentage may raise concerns about inadequate compensation.

Cry from the patients

One patient, 24-year-old Victor Chilimina, shared his dissatisfaction with the inconsistency in their ratings. Victor explained how the disease had left him weakened, struggling with involuntary movements and tremors. He emphasized the need for uniform ratings for all patients, given the severity of their shared condition.

He detailed how the illness has taken a toll on him, leaving him feeling weak in his joints. “I find it challenging to maintain my balance,” he explained. “There are moments when I sway back, causing me to fall down. I struggle to control these involuntary movements and often experience tremors, even when holding something.”

Another patient, Abel Kapuka, 43, expressed concerns that his health was deteriorating, and the initial medical reports did not accurately reflect his current situation.

Abel described the severe deterioration of his health, reaching a point where he couldn't even turn around. "I frequently lose my balance and fall," he added, "My body feels incredibly weak, and I often find myself moving backward instead of forward."

He emphasised, "The most helpful thing the doctors and SAFAL can do for us is to ensure that we all receive the same percentage rating. Our conditions are debilitating, and we've lost the ability to work. Our lives have been shattered, and our wives bear the brunt of our suffering. Consistency in our ratings is essential for our future.

Festus Miselo, a 27-year-old patient, highlighted the issue of missing medical files at UTH, fearing that this might affect his chances of receiving a 100 percent rating. He urged the government to step in and provide assistance to the afflicted individuals.

“Government should intervene and provide us with assistance," Festus passionately implored. "Our disabilities vary, and our conditions are severe. I struggle to walk, frequently stumbling as if I have epilepsy, and my cognitive abilities have significantly slowed. We earnestly request the health facility to improve the handling of our medical files. Our circumstances are dire, and we are in desperate need of assistance," he emphasized.

Doctors’ response

A neurology doctor at UTH, who has chosen to remain anonymous, acknowledged the presence of a misunderstanding among certain individuals. Some believed that neurologists should include the compensation percentage in the final medical report, which is not the case.

"As medical professionals, our role does not involve determining compensation; this falls outside our job description and expertise. Compensation matters are under the jurisdiction of the Board. Our primary responsibility is to provide medical treatment and produce a report detailing the patient's current condition. The task of determining compensation percentages lies with the Board," he explained.

The doctor explained that there seemed to be a misunderstanding among certain individuals who believed that neurologists should specify the compensation percentage in their reports.

"Initially, some doctors had included the 100% figure, but it was promptly clarified that it was not the doctor's responsibility."

"We promptly sought guidance from the Board on how to complete the final report. Our revised approach now involves leaving the relevant section blank for the Board's consideration. They will evaluate the reports provided by the doctors and make compensation determinations based on their expertise and established guidelines.”

Response from the Compensation Board

Kennedy Zulu, WCFCB's head of Communication and Customer Services, explained that the Board had received the report on the manganism victims but was awaiting critical information from other institutions to determine compensation percentages.

“The hiccup we have right now we do not have the necessary information to determine the percentage of disability before granting compensation,” he said. “However, as soon as we receive this critical data, we will promptly share it with you. It's at this point that we will proceed with the actual compensation process.”

The WCFCB had recommended intensified efforts to find a solution before October to provide patients with a final medical report outlining their compensation course.

Company's Promise

Matthews Mwepu, SAFAL's safety officer, detailed that the company had facilitated the completion of final medical reports for all patients at UTH. He acknowledged the disparity in doctors' understanding of compensation regulations and the complexity of the situation.

Matthews emphasised the need for broader consultations and expertise to address manganese toxicity-related health issues comprehensively.

He mentioned that doctors at UTH were conducting extensive research into the condition but faced challenges in finding a cure. Patients were advised to avoid high manganese exposure areas and engage in physiotherapy.

Activists say there is urgent need for fair compensation and comprehensive support for SAFAL's former employees suffering from manganism, whose lives have been profoundly affected by this condition.

SAFAL is co-owned by a Zambian and three Indian nationals - Ajay Badrinaraya Shastry, Vijay Agarwal, Madhav Dube and Nikhilesh Singh. The Zambian is Pankaj Jain, as confirmed by the Patents and Company Registration Agency (PACRA) documents. The company operates a manganese processing facility situated in a small isolated village settlement called Kanona, some 50 kilometres west of Serenje town in Muchinga Province.

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