Mysterious Nodding Disease Affecting Uganda

By Amir Khan on July 30, 2012 11:21 AM EDT

Uganda
Downtown Kampala, Uganda (Photo: Creative Commons)

A mysterious "nodding disease" is spreading across Uganda, affecting children with an affliction that is baffling doctors across the world. More than 300 young Ugandans have died as a result of the disease, with more than 3,000 other currently affected.

The disease is called nodding syndrome because those who have it nod their heads and slip into epileptic fits. Children with the disease have stunted growth and no cognition, rendering them unable to even recognize their own parents.

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Scientists are working to find the cause of the disease, which has stretched healthcare in Uganda to the brink of breaking. They are investigating why it affects mostly children and why it's only in certain communities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ruled out 36 possible causes for the disease and is testing potential treatments. In February, lead investigator for the disease said there is "clear evidence that this is an epidemic."

"We did repeated exams on several of these children and found that some of the children had stayed the same, some of the children had gotten worse, none of the children had improved," Scott Dowell, director of CDC's Division of Global Disease Detection and Emergency Response, said, according to USA Today.

Beginning on Monday, Ugandan officials is hosting a four-day conference on nodding syndrome that health officials hope will lead to a better understanding of the mysterious disease. Officials from the World Health Organization will be attendance.

Researchers are focusing on a potential link between nodding syndrome and the parasite that causes river blindness, also known as onchocerciasis. But while onchocerciasis has been  around for years, nodding syndrome is relatively new.

"And we also know that there are many parts of the world that have onchocerciasis but have no evidence of nodding syndrome," Dowell said.

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