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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

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