It’s called the “nodding disease” and it’s a baffling illness that has struck thousands of children in northern Uganda. The illness brings on seizures, violent behavior in some (debated), personality changes, and a host of other unusual symptoms.
I. Mental Degradation: Child Victims Have no Cure, no Future
Grace Lagat, a northern Uganda native, is mother of two children – Pauline Oto and Thomas — both of whom are victims of the disease. For their safety, when she leaves the house, she now ties them up, using fabric like handcuffs. She recalls, “When I am going to the garden, I tie them with cloth. If I don’t tie them I come back and find that they have disappeared.”
Reportedly the children gnaw at their fabric restraints, like a rabid animals – or “zombies” of popular fiction — in an attempt to escape.
(Jason Oh points out that the restraints are intended to protect the chidlren from harm, and from starting fires.)
The effort to restrain the children is not unwarranted. In one of the most bizarre symptoms of this tragic illness, children with the disease are reportedly setting fire to buildings in their communities. Coupled with the aimless wandering this disease provokes in victims, this is a deadly combination. More than 200 people have been killed in fires believed to be set by the zombified children.
(According to Jason Oh, there have been few reports of violent behavior. It is unclear where our primary source CNN received this information, though a reader suggested that a CDC report indicated that 10 to 15 percent of children were found to exhibit increased aggression. We were unable to locate this report.)
The disease is not new. It popped up in the 1960s in Sudan. From there it slowly spread to Libya and Tanzania.
The Uganda infections, though, are a new outbreak — a troubling sign. The jump into a new region could be pure coincidence, or it could indicate the disease has become more virulent or found a new transmissions vector.
Infected children typically have regular seizures, which are proceeded by a repetitive nodding of the head. This characteristic symptom has given rise to the unofficial title for the malady.
II. World Medical Organizations Racing for a Cure
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) have been tracking the spread of this frightening ailment. Dr. Joaquin Saweka says the scene in Uganda is horrific, stating, “It was quite desperate, I can tell you. Imagine being surrounded by 26 children and 12 of them showing signs of this. The attitude was to quickly find a solution to the problem.”
Yet the WHO and CDC are not fully sure what is causing the illness, which cripples children and turns them into mindless, violence-prone zombies. The best clue they have is that most of the cases occur in regions inhabited by “Black flies”, which carry the parasitic worm Onchocerca Volvulus. That worm is responsible for another dangerous disease dubbed “river blindness”, the world’s second leading cause of infectious blindness.
(Jason Oh states that CNN misunderstood this reference. While it’s true the cause of the disease is unknown and the literature papers on the topic indicate an overlap with part of the river blindness afflicted regions, but he feels this reference was only intended to “state the obvious”, not hypothesize causation.)
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