Uganda

Uganda: Kitgum children hit by nodding disease

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By Chris Kiwawulo

OVER 300 children have been found with a strange 'nodding disease' in Kitgum district. The affected children aged between eight and 15 are mainly in Internally Displaced People's (IDP) camps in the three sub-counties of Amida, Akwang and Palabek gem.

A team of 20 medics from the African Field Epidemiology Network (AFENET), Mulago and Butabika hospitals carried out a two-week study of the disease in the district.

AFENET medical epidemiologist Dr. Monday Busuulwa, said they had taken samples of blood, urine, cerebral spinal fluids and skin snips from the affected children for tests.

He could, however, not tell when the tests would be ready.

Among the symptoms the children experience are incessant nodding, mental and physical problems, lack of appetite and loss of consciousness. "We are only able to contain the convulsions with the drug carbimazepine. We have no cure yet because we don't know its cause," stated Busuulwa. He however stressed that the disease was not contagious.

Busuulwa said the disease is suspected to be a result of eating game meat, food and water contaminated with heavy metal components like lead or river blindness, but said these were all subject to investigation. He noted that 60% of the children with epilepsy also have a history of head nodding.

Betty Olana, a 31-year-old mother in Alune IDP camp, has five of her 10 children suffering from the disease

She said when the disease first hit her 10-year-old daughter, Sarah Aber in November 2003, residents and relatives were quick to conclude that it was witchcraft.

"But because I am a staunch Catholic, I rejected their allegation and I called priests to pray for my daughter," Olana said, adding that hardly a month after the attack on her daughter, several other children in the camp got the disease.

According to Sr. Grace Ogwang, the Kitgum district health visitor, over 40% of children with the disease have dropped out of school.

She added that residents had reported some deaths resulting from the disease although they could not be verified. Ogwang further disclosed that the disease had also been reported in neighbouring Pader district, although the statistics were not available.

The Nodding disease is a new, little-known disease which emerged in Sudan in the 1980s. It is a fatal, mentally and physically disabling disease that only affects young children.

When a child is affected by the disease, his or her growth appears to be completely and permanently stunted. The growth of the brain is also stunted, leading to mental retardation.