Past decades in Africa, humanity has made great strides to survive and develop medicine and medical technology against pandemic and plagues. But some mysterious epidemics worried some African countries.
In some parts of Tanzania and Uganda, some epidemics from years ago confuse or ridicule the understanding of the medicine. Several of it can only be outlined as outbreaks of hysteria or mass hallucinations caused by intense social pressures. Others are even more mysterious, without any logic or reason.
1. The Laughter Epidemic (Tanganyika)
1962 turned out to be a lousy year for mystifying outbreaks. Months earlier, in the small village of Kashasha in Tanzania (then known as Tanganyika), an epidemic of laughing attacks hit a boarding school mainly for the girls.
It started with only three people and seemed to be a usual flurry of giggles among the young girls. But before the end of the day, a staggering 95 of the students in that school were affected, more than half of the entire student body. It was January 30th, the day the laughter began. On March 30th, the school was closed entirely due to low medical care for the students.
The most frightening part of the epidemic was that this was just the beginning. After the embarkation, the school was closed, and the affected girls were sent away to different villages. Maybe the staff thought that by separating those suffering from the laughter attacks, they could prevent the spread of the epidemic. Instead, they multiplied.
In May, 200 people in the nearby settlement of Nshamba were suffering hysterical laughing fits, and in June, 50 more in a college near Bukoba were hit. By the time the laughter reduced – after infecting some people for 16 days – 1,000 or more people had been affected, and a total of 14 schools had been closed. To date, no real explanation has been offered for this disturbing series of events.
Able to cause both physical and mental disabilities, the nodding disease is a dreaded epidemic characterized by the seizures suffered by its victims. They are forced to shake their heads convulsively, and it prevents the infected person from eating or sleeping.
They first identified in 1962 in Tanzania, southern Sudan, and Uganda, where severe epidemics have occurred as recently as 2012. The scale of the problem has been such that Dr. Anthony Mbonye, Uganda’s Commissioner for Health Services, has opened a series of clinics specifically designed to treat people suffering from this strange disease.
Although the attacks are uncomfortable and frightening, the real damage of nodding syndrome comes from stunted growth. Once the victims are infected, they are wholly and permanently stunted, both in body and mind. Since the disease primarily affects children between the ages of five and 15, it can lead to truly life-altering disabilities for those affected.
Although doctors still have a long way to go to understand the cause of the epidemic, there is some expectation. Scientists believe that a link between the syndrome and a type of parasitic worm that often occurs in affected areas may offer a possible answer. However, at the moment, there is no real evidence and no actual remediation.