Ugan­dan of­fi­cials feud as ill­ness kills chil­dren

The Washington Times Daily - - Front Page - BY IOAN­NIS GAT­SIOU­NIS

KAM­PALA, UGANDA | The Ugan­dan gov­ern­ment has come un­der fire for its han­dling of a mys­te­ri­ous dis­ease that has killed hun­dreds of chil­dren in the north­ern part of this im­pov­er­ished East African na­tion.

The ill­ness, called nod­ding dis­ease and char­ac­ter­ized by symp­toms sim­i­lar to epilepsy, has af­flicted more than 1,000 chil­dren since June. Its cause is un­known, and there is no cure. Vic­tims of­ten nod their heads un­con­trol­lably. Many also suf­fer men­tal re­tar­da­tion and stunted growth.

Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials de­flect blame for the out­break. The Health Min­istry faults the cen­tral gov­ern­ment for fail­ing to treat the dis­ease and fi­nance re­search into its cause. The gov­ern­ment blames the Health Min­istry for fail­ing to tap funds in the min­istry’s bud­get for malaria con­trol to combat the epi­demic.

The stand­off has placed in­tense scru­tiny on Pres­i­dent Yow­eri Mu­sev­eni’s regime, which stands ac­cused of mas­sive fi­nan­cial mis­man­age­ment since a land­slide pres­i­den­tial vic­tory last year. Mr. Mu­sev­eni as­sumed the pres­i­dency in 1986.

Last month, the Fi­nance Min­istry re­jected the Health Min­istry’s re­quest for $3 mil­lion just days af­ter it was an­nounced that 170 newly elected mem­bers of par­lia­ment would re­ceive about $50,000 each to pur­chase lux­ury ve­hi­cles.

That same week, the gov­ern­ment re­jected a pay raise for teach­ers that would have kept pace with the coun­try’s near 30 per­cent in­fla­tion rate.

Ta­male Mirundi, a spokesman for Mr. Mu­sev­eni, de­fended the gov­ern­ment’s po­si­tion.

“Nod­ding dis­ease is not an is­sue for [the pres­i­dent’s of­fice]. That falls un­der Min­istry of Health,” he said.

Par­lia­ment re­cently ap­proved a re­quest from Mr. Mu­sev­eni for a bud­get sup­ple­ment of $39 mil­lion that he says is re­quired to keep the gov­ern­ment run­ning de­spite mas­sive in­jec­tions of for­eign aid each year. The United States alone gave Uganda $1.1 bil­lion last year.

Mr. Mu­sev­eni’s pro­posal does not in­clude fund­ing for nod­ding dis­ease, which the gov­ern­ment says the Health Min­istry should han­dle by di­vert­ing about $420,000 meant for malaria con­trol.

The Health Min­istry said the malaria funds are not enough for a dis­ease that spans three dis­tricts in the north of the coun­try. Many vic­tims of the dis­ease travel long dis­tances to reach the near­est of three treat­ment cen­ters.

A group of Ugan­dans liv­ing in Bri­tain, alarmed by what they see as gov­ern­ment in­dif­fer­ence to­ward the coun­try’s sick and poor, plans to raise funds to pro­vide so­cial care and trans­porta­tion for fam­i­lies af­fected by the dis­ease. The World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion is as­sist­ing with re­search into its cause and treat­ment.

The dis­ease mainly af­fects chil­dren ages 5 to 15. It is char­ac­ter­ized by re­peated head droop­ing and is of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by con­vul­sions and star­ing spells. Those af­fected of­ten have per­ma­nently stunted growth, in­clud­ing brain growth. Food and weather may trig­ger the ill­ness.

The dis­ease was first dis­cov­ered in Tan­za­nia in 1962.

Many of the vic­tims are mal­nour­ished and al­ready suf­fer from river blind­ness. At least 200 peo­ple have died.

Sev­eral suf­fer­ers have been found teth­ered like goats to trees to pre­vent them from hurt­ing them­selves as their par­ents tend to es­sen­tial chores such as farm­ing.

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