Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, March 10, 2005

Cassava kills 27 Filipino children

By Paul Alexander
Associated Press

MANILA, Philippines — At least 27 elementary school children died and another 100 were hospitalized after eating a snack of cassava — a root that's poisonous if not prepared correctly — during morning recess yesterday in the southern Philippines, officials said.

Anecita Layung and her daughter today grieved the loss of her son, Wilfredo, who is to be buried with other schoolchildren in Mabini, Philippines, after eating cassava.

Aaron Favila • Associated Press

Francisca Doliente said her 9-year-old niece, Arve Tamor, was given deep-fried caramelized cassava by a classmate who bought it from a regular vendor outside the San Jose school.

"Her friend is gone. She died," Doliente said, adding that her niece was undergoing treatment.

The roots of the cassava plant, a major crop in Southeast Asia, are rich in protein, minerals and vitamins A, B and C. However, the roots are poisonous unless peeled and thoroughly cooked. If they are eaten raw, the human digestive system will convert part of them into cyanide. Even two cassava roots contain a fatal dose.

The victims suffered severe stomach pain, then vomiting and diarrhea. They were taken to at least four hospitals near the school in Mabini, a town on Bohol island, about 380 miles southeast of Manila.

The incident in the Philippines should put Hawai'i residents on notice because cassava is widely available in the Islands, too, said Amy Agbayani, president of the Filipino Community Center.

Grieving parents of at least 27 elementary schoolchildren in Mabini, Philippines, prepared today for a mass burial.

Aaron Favila • Associated Press

"It's easily grown in the yard, and it's actually eaten by many ethnic groups here," she told Advertiser staff writer Vicki Viotti.

Josie Clausen, an Ilocano language teacher at the University of Hawai'i, said cassava is available at markets in Chinatown and elsewhere, adding that some Filipinos enjoy cooking the leaves, which also can be poisonous if improperly prepared.

Clausen told The Advertiser that her recipes advise 30 minutes of boiling for cassava root. That was confirmed by many cooking references on the Web published in the various countries where cassava is popular.

The sweetened preparation, a mochi-like cake, is most popular with Filipinos, she said.

"Somebody just gave me a cassava cake," Clausen said. "And I ate one yesterday."

Other names for cassava are tapioca plant and yucca. In the American kitchen, the processed product used for making tapioca pudding is safe to eat.

The survivors of the Philippines episode reported that even a taste of the poisonous batch was enough to cause ill effect.

"Some said they took only two bites because it tasted bitter and the effects were felt five to 10 minutes later," said Dr. Harold Gallego of Garcia Memorial Provincial Hospital in the nearby town of Talibon, where 47 patients were taken.

Mabini Mayor Stephen Rances said 27 students were confirmed dead. Treatment was delayed because the nearest hospital was 20 miles away.

Grace Vallente, 26, said her 7-year-old nephew, Noel, died en route to the hospital and that her 9-year-old niece, Roselle, was undergoing treatment.

"There are many parents here," she said from L.G. Cotamura Community Hospital in Bohol's Ubay town. "The kids who died are lined up on beds. Everybody's grief-stricken."

Dr. Leta Cutamora confirmed 14 dead at the hospital and 35 others admitted for treatment.

Dr. Nenita Po, chief of the Gov. Celestino Gallares Memorial Hospital, said 13 were brought there, including the 68-year-old woman who prepared the food with another woman. Two girls, ages 7 and 8, died.

A specimen of the cassava was taken for inspection at the local Crime Laboratory Group.