Nodding disease in Africa: Is “Mindless Zombie” label bringing needed attention to the crisis? (UPDATED)

DailyTech – Baffling Illness Strikes Africa, Turns Children Into Mindless “Zombies”.

World Health Organization is on high alert about new Ugandan outbreak, cause is not fully known.

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.

Reportedly the children gnaw at their fabric restraints, like a rabid animals — or “zombies” of popular fiction — in an attempt to escape. (This is based on CNN’s commentary.)

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.

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.

Tip: The Daily Grail

The original story appeared here on CNN.

The top link contains disclaimers and clarifications from the CNN story from a medical student in Uganda. It has been updated where it seems like the situation was perhaps embellished or not exactly accurate.

However, comments to these articles are what is really off the edge – citing deliberate infections, germ warfare, conspiracies, and all sorts of speculation about the cause. There seems dispute this is not a new disease. I’m unclear from this one story just what disease it may be, though, the hype has possibly made it into something new and frightening. There are quotes from WHO and CDC but I simply can’t tell what is accurate and what is dramatic license. Use of the word “zombie” was clearly evocative and resulted in this story making rounds quickly and garnering attention. Perhaps that’s good so that it will be investigated, but how much is the truth? Truth is important to solve this.

UPDATE: (13-Apr-2012) Nature blog has a piece on Nodding disease.

Since it was first described in 1962 in Tanzania, the frequently fatal disease has been blamed, variously, on viruses, pesticides, fungi, vitamin deficiency, monkey meat and parasites. A new special report, published online April 12 in Science, details the more recent outbreaks of the condition in South Sudan and northern Uganda and helps to refine the list of possible causes.

Dowell and his team have made many trips to Uganda to further investigate this strange syndrome. They used EEGs and MRIs to study the brains of patients while they were going through a head-nodding bout. “Something is badly wrong with the brains of these kids, and it’s physiological,” he told Science. But these tools did not lead them to a definite answer, although most viruses, prion disease (from eating monkey meat), fungi and pesticides seem to be losing steam as likely explanations.

He explains there may be multiple factors. Check out the Nature piece for more.