Friday December 23 2011

Nodding disease: MPs threaten to ferry ill children to Kampala

Community members attend a village meetings

Community members attend a village meetings organised to sensitise the people on the nodding disease in Atanga Sub-county in Pader District recently. Photo by Moses Akena 

By Sheila Naturinda & Agatha Ayebazibwe

As frustration grows over government’s purported slow response to the nodding disease in Acholi Sub-region, rehabilitation centres are now set to be established for thousands of affected children.
Dr Jane Achieng, the director general of health services, said in two weeks, she would lead a team of technocrats and area politicians to the affected areas to assess the situation and recommend solutions.

However, Acholi MPs led by Aswa County MP Reagan Okumu, in a sarcastic tone, said they would ‘help’ government by ferrying to Kampala all children suffering from the disease in protest if the agreed-upon positions are not met.

“She genuinely told us that a few children were brought to Mulago (Hospital) and treated. Now, we shall help them ferry all the affected children to get the same treatment since it seems that is the only language they will listen to,” Mr Okumu said.

Earlier, the Acholi Parliamentary Group warned that they would camp at the ministry headquarters as the year closes, “to mourn for the children who have since passed on” as a result of the nodding disease.
Now they have promised to use all available buses to ferry sick children to Kampala.

Dr Achieng told this newspaper that the affected were reportedly 2,223, a figure less by 100 from the one presented by the MPs from Pader, Kitgum and Lamwo districts.

Mr Okumu said they expect the government to handle the case as an emergency, but Dr Acheing said nodding disease cannot be handled like Ebola because it is chronic.

However, Mr Okumu said: “We have agreed that government starts to handle the situation as an emergency but the director told us that funds haven’t been forthcoming.”

Explaining the probable cause of the disease, Dr Achieng said the ministry first received reports of the cases in 2009, although the same reports did not indicate any deaths.

“Until today, the cause isn’t known, not only in Uganda but also in other countries where the cases have been reported,” she said.

She named Tanzania, Liberia and South Sudan as countries which registered cases in 2003.

The government says they have sent specimen to two laboratories in France and Atlanta, US but results are yet to come out.

Among other interventions agreed upon by the MPs and Health ministry was to aid health centres on the ground, intensify the training of more health workers and sensitise more people on handling the victims.
Dr Achieng said the disease is not contagious so people should not avoid the victims.

According to a report by Trans-Cultural Psychosocial Organisation, a non-governmental organisation, at least 1,800 new cases of the disease are reported after every three months.

“Within the communities, some of the parents have thrown their children onto the streets,” said Dr Emmanuel Tenywa, the World Health Organisation’s team leader in the area.

Tracing the disease
Nodding disease dates as far back as 1962 when several children with attacks of “nodding head” were registered in Mahenge Village in southern Tanzania. Eighteen years later, it was reported in Sudan and in 2008, the disease was reported in Northern Uganda.

The disease affects children between the age of two and 15, especially boys. The children are likely to die because they lose consciousness, get seizures which can make them fall in fire or water. School often becomes too difficult for the victims to cope and they drop out.

A child with nodding disease gets stunted physically and mentally. Nodding and seizures begin when the child is eating. Most children thus shun food and become malnourished.

Other symptoms include body stiffness, running nose and saliva, occasional defecation and urination during attack. The seizures can also cause children to collapse and injure themselves or die

The cause of the disease is unknown and few children are said to have recovered from it.

Some say nodding disease may be caused by effects of biological and chemical weapons used during the two-decade insurgency in the area.

Another possible cause is said to be tainted food such as spoiled plants or meat, especially monkey meat.
Another theory is that the disease is connected to a parasitic worm, Onchocerca volvulus, which is carried by a black fly and also causes river blindness.