Mystery Disease Turns Children Into Violent Zombies

More than 3,000 other children in Northern Uganda, has been struck by the mysterious syndrome that has doctors and scientists puzzled and has shattered lives in this rural community. Nodding disease gets its name from the strange nodding-like symptoms that children display in the first stages of a seizure. But doctors on the ground and at the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that is the least profound effect.

Severe epilepsy-like seizures grip the children, they struggle to eat, and they become shells of their former selves. It is a progressive and debilitating syndrome that robs children of their future.

The seizures are triggered in strange ways, say community members, such as when unfamiliar food is brought to the children or when the weather changes.

There are other bizarre symptoms. Often the children will wander off by themselves and get lost in the bush. And other children will start fires, according to parents and medics in the field. Others appear confused and traumatized.

We were told that several houses in areas we visited had been burnt down by children suffering from nodding disease. More than 200 deaths have been reported from these 'secondary' incidents.

A team from the World Health Organization team visited the region of Gulu and Kitgum and noticed a high incidence of the disturbing symptoms.

"It was quite desperate, I can tell you," says Dr. Joaquin Saweka, the WHO representative in Uganda. "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."

This outbreak in Uganda is confined to the north and is not believed to be contagious, but from a public health standpoint it still has to be taken seriously.

"We know from past experience an unknown disease could end up having more global implications," says Dr. Dowell.

For Ugandan children in the region it is having massive implications.

In the first three days of registering children at the Atanga health center in Pader district last week, more than 400 possible cases showed up. One extended family had seven children afflicted with Nodding Disease -- all of them severely stunted physically and mentally.

Nodding disease seems to only affect children between 1 to 19 years, with the worst affected at ages 3 to 11, based on anecdotal evidence gathered by health workers.

It is unclear how many fatalities have been caused by the disease itself, but its victims are left unable to function in any meaningful sense and profoundly dependent on others for care.


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