Mysterious 'nodding' disease strikes children

PHOTO: Mysterious 'nodding' disease strikes children

SUDAN - Martha Halim, 13, suffers from a strange affliction that makes her nod vigorously at the sight of food.

Her parents have tried everything from witch doctors to anti-epilepsy drugs, but the disease has experts and officials worldwide baffled.

The affliction is loosely termed 'nodding disease' by its victims in Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania, where it is currently contained.

Named after its primary symptom of pathological nodding, it has a peculiar set of symptoms, reportedly affecting only children below 15 years of age.

The seizures are triggered by the food and low temperatures, but is strangely not present when victims are given unfamiliar food, said a World Health Organization (WHO) report.

The seizures stop once the child stops eating or feels warm again.

Children affected by it also do not grow up - a 12-year-old can look like a 5-year-old. Besides physical growth, mental development also appears to be stunted, leading to retardation.

Children afflicted often waste away from malnourishment and infections, as their seizures terrify them from eating and they slowly fade away.



When nodding means dying

Martha lives in fear everyday, frightened of the moon's phases, eating, fires, rivers and ponds, she told the Associated Press (AP).

Last year, she fell into a cooking fire while suffering a seizure, and now has a severe burn scar that stretches from knee to foot.

Her parents have lost hope of finding a cure. They have tried witch doctors, who advised Martha to crawl through a termite mound while her parents slit the throat of a goat. They have tried hospitals and anti-epileptic drugs, to no avail.

The disease has no known treatment and no cure. While experts say a few have recovered, most say there is no hope for those afflicted.

"You can consider her a dead person, because she is not going to marry and she is going to die of this disease," her father told AP journalists.

Schooling becomes impossible for these children and parents are face the difficult task of nursing them. Some are thrown out to fend for themselves, said Dr Emmanuel Tenywa from WHO.

In northern Uganda, Global Health Frontline News recorded the plight of nine-year old Vicky Ayaa, who similarly has been afflicted by the strange disease.

She began showing symptoms early this year. He mother is in despair, as both her children have the condition.

Throughout the village, parents were taking desperate measure to protect their children, with one mother reportedly keeping her son tethered to a post with a rope so he cannot wander off.

Their fears are not unfounded. According to the reporters, almost every family they encountered in the village in Pader District, Uganda, had a child afflicted with it.



Disease spreading; experts baffled

The exact numbers of those afflicted is vague. However, WHO said that in just Sudan, over 300 children have been diagnosed with it.

Lilian Apoto, a nurse from Okidi Clinic, northern Uganda, said in her area alone, the number has reached 320 reported cases.

The Uganda Radio Network reported last month that the disease is on the rise in the Kitgum district, Uganda, but officials are uncertain as to what to do to contain the disease.

Experts suspect the disease may be related to the little-known Nakalanga Syndrome, where victims similarly suffer from convulsions, stunted growth and sometimes nodding.

The nodding disease could also be linked to river blindness - a disease transmitted by the black fly - as it is widespread in the areas where the nodding disease has been reported.

Other speculated causes include eating monkeys, environmental factors such as food and chemical contamination of the area.

While it has only been found in pockets of communities, the rising number of cases is sparking a growing terror in the villages and a greater sense of urgency in the health community.

Peter Spencer, a neurotoxicologist who has investigated the disease for WHO, said unveiling the disease is a question of money and time.

Along with WHO, international agencies such as The United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Atlanta, are also looking into the matter.

While WHO has pledged its technical and financial support to the establishment of the cause of the disease and provision of symptomatic relief for sufferers, investigations have been inconclusive as of now.