June 16th, 2008
03:31 PM ET

Cameroon's diseased children

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent

In a small town called Akonolinga, about an hour outside Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, a strange disease is going around that primarily affects children. It starts as an ulcer on the skin that quickly spreads. Untreated, it can start to affect the bones and eventually even get into the bloodstream. If it gets to that point, there is little that can be done, and the child will often succumb to the disease. They try everything in this small village town to not let it get to that bad. They scrape away the skin, cutting out the diseased areas. They give injections of various medicines, and they keep people in hospitals for months. I met a young boy named Naturale, who had to have his left arm amputated at the shoulder. I almost cried when I met him. By the time he came into see a doctor, the disease was too far gone, his bones literally crumbling. As I visited the clinic, I learned the name of the disease: Buruli. I also learned something that stunned me — what many in this town believe is the origin of Buruli: Witchcraft.

It goes like this — as a punishment for taking something or some other trivial thing, these children had been cursed by witches and sorcerers living in the nearby areas. Take someone else’s mango for example, and soon after the child will get an ulcer. In Naturale’s case, he was born out of wedlock, and the witches in the area thought it would be better if he were dead. I was told they cursed him with a particularly severe infection, and he barely survived. Now he stays at the hospital trying to shield himself.

Now, if you think what you are reading is too far-fetched, you may be interested to know I sat down with Ph.D-level medical anthropologist, Karen Saylors, who explained all of this to me. Along with researchers associated with Johns Hopkins, she is studying Buruli.

Buruli ulcers have been reported in more than 30 countries, according to the World Health Organization. With the increasing geographical spread since 1980, WHO is working to improve surveillance and develop better tools to control the disease. Karen introduced me to traditional healers who knew all about placing a hex on someone and even how to cure the disease with herbs and a piece of bark.

While Karen and her colleagues don’t really buy into the idea of witchcraft, they also recognize what a widespread belief it really is here. Instead, Karen has busied herself studying the possibility that Buruli may be spread from animal to human. As it has many similarities to a staph infection, which can cause flesh to be ulcerated and seemlingly “eaten,”, the doctors are using powerful antibiotics with good success. Karen has even studied the particular traditional medicine herbs, which are often effective. What she found was that particular plant had some of the same ingredients found in streptomycin, an antibiotic.

As a doctor, it was amazing to see how this disease has been deciphered. It was also a fascinating glimpse into the connection between animals, plants and humans. Not only is the Buruli-causing pathogen most likely from an animal, but the medication used to treat it is from a local plant. And, if we look deep enough, we find this is in fact the case with many diseases.

Today, I will be in the wilderness of DRC, specifically a village called Lodja. We will be visiting a monkeypox surveillance clinic. I promise to report back on how the locals here are working to contain the virus so it doesn’t spread around the world. I can’t help be struck by the fact that we are in the middle of a very strong interface between man and animal. It has been here for millions of years, but it is only now that we are starting to understand its awesome culture, power and possible danger.  revised 6/19/2008

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Dr.Paulinus C Fultang

    It is rather unfortunate that your report on the issue relating to sick children in Cameroon are not based on any researched scientific finding but on stories of witchcraft.It degrading of your status to publish issues based on local circulated rumours as though they were authenticated by research.You need to review your article.
    Dr.PC Fultang

    June 18, 2008 at 05:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Lauren R., USA

    How terrible for those children. I'm guessing that beliefs like that had some kind of origin hundreds or even thousands of years ago with the need to keep the sick away from the healthy for the greater good; the witchcraft part probably comes from the need to reduce the urge to assist their own. But how terrible that this stupid ideology still persists today. Far from doing any greater good, this kind of warped thinking in a modern society tends to spread like its own disease, infecting all, with little hope of eventual remission.

    June 18, 2008 at 11:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. GF

    It's astonishing to read about such horrific diseases that exist in these jungles. I for one couldn't bring myself to visit for fear of catching something.

    June 18, 2008 at 11:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Mary Beth Medford

    This is in response to the Dr. Fultang,
    As a nurse, I realize how important it is to understand the feelings and beliefs of people, in order to help them get well. The witchcraft stories are important to recognize and acknowledge, so the proper tools can be used to help people. I appreciate the researchers for paying attention to what the local people believe, and by not ignoring their beliefs, hopefully this disease can become extinct.

    June 21, 2008 at 03:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Anon MD

    Also in response to Dr. Fultang,
    If you read the article carefully, it's apparent that none of the scientists actually believes that the diseases are caused by witchcraft, and rather they are trying to find out what bacterium is the actual cause as well as treating the ulcers quite sensibly with antibiotics. In addition, they are looking for antibiotic properties in the local plants that have traditionally been used to treat the illness with some reported efficacy–quite a rational thing to do [and I've worked in (Western-style, rigorous, scientifically-driven) drug development in both small and large pharma].

    I agree with Mary Beth that it is very important to understand what the villagers believe about the disease–only by taking a medical history in a context that they understand will one get any useful information regarding onset, symptoms, course, etc. It is then up to the scientist to separate fact from superstition, develop an effective treatment, and somehow convince the villagers to actually accept the treatment. By showing respect for their beliefs and thus developing trust, one will be able to more easily accomplish one's goals.

    June 23, 2008 at 01:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Nancy

    Dr. Sanjay Gupta,

    While in Cameroon, did you check on the situation with the sulfuric acid gases that come out of some of the lakes and kill people and animals?
    Do you remember a few years ago (1998?) when thousands were killed during the night from the gas that comes out of the lake? A good refresher of this on-going natural disaster that has probably been going on for hundreds/thousands of years can be read in a 2003 article in the Smithsonian magazine. A pipe was placed by a U.S. organization to help the gas vent out slowly and safely, but is it still in place and really working? The caretaker of the pipe is a local man who lost his family in the last disaster. Doc, we need someone to report on this story.


    July 3, 2008 at 00:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Cameroon Africa

    Cameroon info and travel guide.
    Cameroon travel and Cameroon information Guide. Cameroon: Africa in Miniature.
    Learn about Cameroon people, the country and  Cameroon culture.  Get relevant travel information on Cameroon Airlines, Cameroon airports, Cameroon  hotel,  maps of Cameroon and Cameroon travel guidelines. Up to date contact information of Cameroon embassy and Cameroon visa application process.
    Cameroon, africa information site
    http://www.cameroon-today.com/index.html Cameroon, Africa

    Join the Cameroonian community
    http://www.kikiriky.com Camerounais.

    Find IP Address
    reverse lookup ip address

    May 11, 2010 at 09:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Cooper Foster

    i had an ulcer last year because i am fond of skipping meals and working too hard. it was quite painful.,:

    August 2, 2010 at 00:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Julia Mason

    ulcer is quite painful and sometimes it is deadly too, my grandmother died from ulcer*;:

    September 29, 2010 at 03:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Concrete Molds 

    ulcer is a very painful disease, i hate ulcer':"

    October 14, 2010 at 04:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Magnesium Ascorbate :

    believe me, ulcer is quite painful and its symptoms are not very good`:"

    October 25, 2010 at 13:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. philippine stock trading game

    My brother recommended this website to me. He said that it was quite very good, and I believe he is right! This article definately made me think.

    September 12, 2011 at 16:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Discover More

    aZaksbVmmp rayban wayfarer wUojKa http://raybansunglasseswayfarer.us/

    June 8, 2012 at 07:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. jaineMiva

    Hermes usa is a made popular logo in clothing and beautiful accessories. Hermes usa hand bag also has been very sold fashion accessories in dispenser area of interest from its manufacture day. However, if you has not achieved an email finder service where if your are reasonable to are shown the authentic anyhow or do not should also spend much too as well as on a handbag, you can consider duplicate Hermes usa wholesale handbags usa.
    Replica Hermes bags lighten female's wardrobes. So where are we able to also get them? but a majority patients are increasingly being in complete agreement for the Internet. available on the internet reap some benefits possess us the but a majority of adored pieces on clothes, bags and every alternate traditional accessories. refined hermes usa. a clear hermes usa examination amongst your choice bags additional details done in an incredible time. all you need to do are looking at the best and newest information additionally that is expended in holder of style and purchasing on a comfortable hermes usa store.
    http://hermesusa.webs.com/ hermes online

    August 15, 2012 at 22:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. ray ban aviator gold cable

    n food, Most of the entr are under $15 and you can easily fill up on appetizers that are all under $10. has a burger at lunch time that is worth the $15. It pricey, but I would spend the money and have a beer and still come in under $25 26. Taqueria Ca at the Venetian has a Two Taco plate that comes with rice and beans. Add in the chips and salsa and you fly under the radar at less than $20, order a beer and you can still squeeze by under $25. 27.
    ray ban aviator gold cable http://ne.campingarmorique.com/raybanoutlet/ray-ban-aviator-gold-cable-9q.asp

    December 3, 2015 at 13:12 | Report abuse | Reply

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.