16 March 2012

Uganda: Govt Turns to Choppers to Fight Nodding Disease

Photo: Agatha Ayebazibwe/Monitor
Doctors say they are seeing an improvement in the condition of children affected by the disease.

Government is considering using helicopters to spray areas affected by the nodding disease, the minister of Health, Dr Catherine Ondoa, has said.

Ondoa also told journalists during a press briefing yesterday that her ministry has dispatched a team of doctors and researchers to northern Uganda to tackle the syndrome that is killing children in droves in Kitgum, Pader and Lamwo districts. Families in these districts have been forced to watch their children present with nodding, seizures, malnutrition and disability. Often, these symptoms have culminated in death.

World health bodies like World Health Organisation and Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have researched, but failed to find the exact cause and cure of Nodding Disease Syndrome. Dr Ondoa told journalists that government trained and dispatched some 99 health workers to Pader, Kitgum and Lamwo to manage the estimated 3,000 or so cases.

"This syndrome involves a multitude of problems and we are managing it in a multi-sector way. We are giving patients anti-epileptic drugs as well as vitamins because most of the children suffer from vitamin deficiency," Dr Ondoa said.

She added that three specialised screening centres have been opened up in Katanga Health Centre III at Kitgum general hospital and Para Bekan specifically to handle Nodding Disease. Patients who go to these health facilities undergo physical checkups, blood tests, and brain and heart scans. They receive medical treatment as well as psychological and occupational therapy.

"Nodding Disease right now is being handled as a medical, nutritional, psychiatric, behavioural and cognitive disorder," Dr Anthony Mbonye, the Commissioner Health Services, told journalists at the media briefing.

Mbonye added that government is also planning outreach programmes for patients who are unable to make it to the health centres. Researchers who have been deployed will carry out environmental and ecological studies in Pader, the worst hit district. Dr Ondoa noted that since the disease is associated with river blindness (Onchocerciasis), government has decided to give preventative medicine to the people in the areas affected by that ailment.

Every six months, government will give people medication to kill off the microfilariae in their bodies and cut the cycle of spreading the disease from one infected person to another, she said. Government also plans to spray the affected areas using helicopters to kill off the black flies that pass on the disease from person to person.

"We urge communities to swallow the medicine and cooperate with us during the spraying so that we prevent the cycle," Dr Ondoa said.

The minister also dismissed media reports that there is a shortage of tuberculosis drugs in the country. She said the country has a stock of TB drugs that can last the next three months. These drugs are available free of charge in government hospitals. Some private hospitals like Kibuli hospital have also been stocked to expand the drugs' reach. Government is also procuring another consignment of TB drugs to last another six months before Uganda receives more TB medicine from the Global Fund in September, ministry of Health officials said.

Nodding Disease facts

• More than 3,000 children diagnosed with Nodding Disease.

• 200 reported to have died from the disease.

• In four days alone, government has registered 437 cases at one health centre of Katanga. Of these, 38 have been admitted.

• Pader is worst hit with 1,700 cases.

• In one day, 40 patients were diagnosed and five admitted at Kitgum general hospital.

• Nine patients admitted at Para Bekan in Lamwo.

• All 25 patients admitted at Mulago hospital are stable. One, though, was diagnosed with a brain tumour and underwent surgery.

• Two of the patients at Mulago have epilepsy, 12 are ready to be discharged.

• Of the Shs 3.6bn needed for research and management, Shs 1.1bn has been released.

• Ministry of Finance has promised another Shs 2.7bn.

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