The first clinics set up to help children in Uganda suffering from a mysterious nodding syndrome have been opened, and medical professionals are now attempting to battle a disease that has baffled science for decades.
Symptoms of the disease, which only affects children, include stunted physical and mental growth and the onslaught of different types of seizures, some of which resemble uncontrolled nodding of the head. These problems cause many fatal side effects, such as children wandering off and getting themselves drowned, injured, or continuously spilling their food and wasting away.
Uganda has been the location of many reported cases of this sickness, and more than 200 children turned up on Monday for treatment in the centers in the districts of Kitgum, Pader and Lamwo, Uganda's Commissioner for Health Services Dr Anthony Mbonye shared with the BBC. The disease has also been reported in South Sudan and Tanzania, and since little is known about it, it is uncertain how wide of a reach it may grow to have. Since 2010, Uganda's health ministry has recorded 3,000 cases and almost 200 deaths.
A case of how the disease affects the daily life of a child was presented to Reuters in a video account of how one Ugandan father, Michael Odongkara, is forced to tie his daughter, Nancy Lamwaka, by her ankle outside to a tree, so that she does not wander off and get herself injured. He says that his 12-year-old daughter has been mentally impaired by the condition, and has injured herself walking into a fire.
"When she was talking she would ask for food," he said, noting that his daughter, who suffers seizures up to five times a day, has also lost the ability to talk. "These days she just stretches out her hand begging for it."
Dr. Scott Dowell, director of the division of global disease detection and emergency response of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), explained that there is still no known cause for the disease which was first documented in Tanzania back in 1962.
"We have ruled out, through our field studies and our laboratory testing, more than three different hypothesized causes including . . . 18 virus families with hundreds of members," Dowell explained. This is a fairly unique problem for the CDC, which has encountered only six unresolved illnesses out of 600 different outbreaks worldwide it has researched.
Although researchers have claimed to be working hard on the issue, Reuters reported that frustration is growing in Uganda, where children continue suffering and dying from this mysterious illness.
"People are very bitter and they think the government has abandoned them," stated Martin Ojara, local council coordinator for the Acholi sub-region in Uganda, which is where the disease is concentrated.
Government officials have claimed they are doing the best they can, though even they admit progress at this point is very slow. No one is sure when a cure, or even the cause for the disease, will be discovered.
"There have been a lot of attempts, from 2009 to date, to get the riddle of this situation answered -- what is the problem and how can it be addressed," revealed Musa Ecweru, the minister of state for disaster preparedness and emergency response in the prime minister's office.
"Everybody knows that government has not just folded its hands. It has been doing all it takes to make sure that it will (get) on top of this situation," Ecweru added.