Nodding disease confounds experts, kills children

by Max Delany

Patrick Anywar, 14, lies curled up naked in the dust and midday heat of a Ugandan village, struggling to look up at his younger brother and sister playing in front of the family home.

After a minute's effort to face his siblings, Anywar's head slumps onto his chest and his emaciated body is gripped by .

Anywar is one of more than 3,000 children in northern Uganda who are suffering from a debilitating mystery ailment known as nodding disease, which has touched almost every family in the village of Tumangu.

For several years, scientists have tried and failed to determine the cause of the illness, which locals say has killed hundreds of youngsters.

What they do know is that the disease affects only children and gradually devastates its victims through debilitating seizures, stunted growth, wasted limbs, mental disabilities and sometimes .

Anywar's mother, Rugina Abwoyo, has already lost one son, named Watmon, to the disease in 2010. Now she says she can do little but watch on helplessly as another child slips away.

"Before he was walking and running like other children, but now someone always has to stay home to look after him," Abwoyo told AFP. "The disease is terrible -- it does not let him drink or eat by himself."

Walking along footpaths cut through the , Joe Otto, a volunteer , explains how nodding disease has ravaged Tumangu, about 450 kilometres (280 miles) north of the capital Kampala.

"There are 780 people living in this village and we have 97 cases of the disease. It has affected almost every family," Otto, 54, told AFP.

Whenever sporadic deliveries of medicine arrive at the local health centre several kilometres away, Otto pedals his bicycle to fetch the drugs. But he knows that they only offer a short-term solution.

"We are giving out drugs for epilepsy, like , but this disease is different from epilepsy," Otto said.

Instead, as the disease has torn through their community, local residents have moved from fear to a grim acceptance, Otto says.

"We started saying that the patient who had died was the one who had been cured, because finally they were at rest from this painful disease," Otto said.

'We hope that our youngest can be saved'

Scientists are trying to find a cure: since 2010, researchers ranging from epidemiologists to environmental experts, neurologists, toxicologists and psychiatrists have carried out a range of tests.

Investigations have looked at possible links between the disease and everything from a parasite that causes river blindness, to malnutrition and the after-effects of a civil war that ravaged northern Uganda for decades.

"We looked at all this, but unfortunately we were not able to pinpoint any significant contributing or risk factors," said Miriam Nanyunja, disease control and prevention officer at the World Health Organisation in Kampala.

"The search for the causative agent is still ongoing," she added.

Often the results have thrown up more questions than answers. Scientists do not know if the disease is linked to similar outbreaks in neighbouring South Sudan and Tanzania.

Efforts continue to understand if the disease is still spreading or has peaked -- and why it is seems confined only to certain communities.

Last month, after pressure from lawmakers from affected areas, Uganda's health ministry produced an emergency response plan to try to identify and control the disease.

However, Nanyunja says that while the search for the cause and a possible cure goes on, for now, doctors can only focus on trying to alleviate the symptoms.

"There are many diseases that we continue to treat symptomatically, without knowing the exact cause," Nanyunja said.

But for Patrick Anywar, any attempts to curb or cure the disease may come too late.

"We are hoping that the doctors work very hard to get the cure for this disease," his mother Abwoyo says.

"There is no future for us as so many children have already been affected, but we hope that our youngest can be saved."

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Cholera kills four, infects 400 in Burundi

Aug 22, 2011

Cholera has killed at least four people in an outbreak in the past three weeks in western Burundi, where more than 400 people are infected, a health ministry official said Monday.

Horror disease hits Uganda

Oct 22, 2010

(AP) -- A disease whose progression and symptoms seem straight out of a horror movie but which can be treated has killed at least 20 Ugandans and sickened more than 20,000 in just two months.

Recommended for you

Evidence-based recs issued for systemic care in psoriasis

51 minutes ago

(HealthDay)—For appropriately selected patients with psoriasis, combining biologics with other systemic treatments, including phototherapy, oral medications, or other biologic, may result in greater efficacy ...

Bacteria in caramel apples kills at least four in US

1 hour ago

A listeria outbreak believed to originate from commercially packaged caramel apples has killed at least four people in the United States and sickened 28 people since November, officials said Friday.

Steroid-based treatment may answer needs of pediatric EoE patients

1 hour ago

A new formulation of oral budesonide suspension, a steroid-based treatment, is safe and effective in treating pediatric patients with eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE), according to a new study in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, the official clinical practice journal ...

Discovery of genes that predispose a severe form of COPD

4 hours ago

A study by Ramcés Falfán-Valencia, researcher at the National Institute of Respiratory Diseases (INER), found that the mestizo Mexican population has a number of variations in certain genes that predispose ...

On the environmental trail of food pathogens

5 hours ago

Tracking one of the deadliest food contamination organisms through produce farms and natural environments alike, Cornell microbiologists are showing how to use big datasets to predict where the next outbreak could start.

User comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.