The number of people dying from drinking methanol-laced liquor stabilized Tuesday after health officials administered a drug to neutralize the toxin in patients' blood. But scores could suffer permanent blindness and brain damage.
At least 36 people died after drinking the bootleg sugarcane liquor, and 658 others were hospitalized during the past week in one of the worst health crises in the country in years, said Dr. Humberto Ramirez, assistant director of the hospital in Leon City, 45 miles west of Managua, where most of the cases have occurred.
It is believed that at least a dozen deaths have not been registered yet.
On Tuesday, only one death was reported after the Pan American Health Organization donated $500,000 worth of Antizol, used to neutralize methanol in victims' blood. Just nine new cases were reported, indicating the epidemic is slowing down, Ramirez said.
Gilberto Moreno, the head of disease control at the Leon hospital, said 424 people have been sent home, but added that most would suffer lifelong effects, including blindness and seizures from damage done to their central nervous systems. About 70 others remain hospitalized there.
"All of them have lost a large amount of neurons," Moreno said. "It's sad. None of these patients will go back to being the same people as they were."
The U.S. military flew 25 health experts, medicine and equipment to Nicaragua on Sunday to help treat the victims, who suffered from headaches, seizures, dizziness and vomiting.
Police have arrested six people who allegedly helped distribute the illegal liquor tainted with methanol, a toxic industrial alcohol used in antifreeze. Bootleggers sometimes add methanol to their batches of liquor to make them stronger.
Officials also seized 17,200 gallons of unauthorized sugarcane liquor, known as "aguardiente," said Mario Perez Cassar, the head of civil defense.
Last week, the federal government declared a national emergency and transferred staff from the capital to hospitals in Leon. Authorities also banned the distribution and sale of distilled alcohol. Bottled liquor that has been sealed with a government health inspection sticker is still allowed.