Mystery disease puzzles doctors . . . Close to 50 people admitted, 15 cattle dead

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Fairness Moyana, Hwange Correspondent
CLOSE to 50 people from Change, Dinde and Nekabandama in Hwange District, Matabeleland North have since the beginning of the month been hospitalised at Lukosi Hospital and surrounding health institutions complaining of severe pain which causes paralysis of the backbone, lower and upper body rendering patients immobile.

However, although no deaths have been reported in the area, health officials said they are failing to detect what the disease was or its causes after all patients tested negative for malaria which they were initially suspecting. Apart from the mystery of the disease, local people are now suspecting that there could be some poisonous plant or water source, as during the same time at least 15 cattle died under mysterious circumstances.

Matabeleland North provincial medical director Dr Nyasha Masuka confirmed the outbreak and said 42 people complaining of back aches, joint pains and high temperatures visited Lukosi Hospital.

“Most patients were admitted for three to four days and were given antibiotics and paracetamol. Investigations for malaria turned out negative. We couldn’t conduct further tests because patients could not afford and because of limited capacity at St Luke’s Hospital. It’s not that we couldn’t diagnose what disease it was but we had those challenges in conducting the necessary tests,” he said.

Dr Masuka said he has since instructed the Hwange District Medical Officer to go back and look into the records and do a spot map and see where the cases came from.

“We want to establish if the cases came from one village or a cluster of homesteads. We are also conducting investigations if there were any public gatherings like funerals or church meetings in those areas where the cases came from to see whether there might be a certain bug that might have hit the area. I have also instructed the District Medical Officer to be on high alert especially after so much rain, a lot of bugs may manifest.”

Dr Masuka added that they have also asked Hwange Colliery to help with tests while other samples have been sent to Bulawayo for testing. Sunday News visited some of the affected areas and the health institution where villagers and some officials said they were now confused on what sort of disease has hit the area.

“Since the beginning of last month people from Change, Gamba, Kashika, Dinde, Chibala, Mpongola and Nekabandama have been coming, some unable to walk or even sit up all complaining of the same problem. Nurses had a hard time treating the patients as they could not diagnose the ailment as malaria tests were inconclusive as most turned out to be negative. The numbers are a bit difficult to ascertain but it is believed that over 46 people have been treated with some hospitalised depending on the severity of their cases. At one point the wards were all filled up and some people had to be treated and discharged,” said a health official at the institution.

Some of the affected villagers told Sunday News that although they have been discharged from the hospital, they were still feeling the pain.

Ms Sithabile Nkosi of Change village said the disease was making her life unbearable as she could not do any chores.

“I couldn’t walk and had to be assisted to get to the hospital because of the pain that seems to creep up from my toes all the way up to my back giving me a burning sensation in my nails, legs and hands especially the joints. I was shocked to get to the hospital and see more people with the same condition admitted, some having been there for days. Initially the nurses suspected malaria. I was just given an antibiotic and discharged after two days to make room for more who were coming. I feel better now but the pain is still there especially my left hand such that I can no longer carry a bucket of water,” she said.
Hwange District medical officer Dr Wisdom Kurauone, however, said although the tests were inconclusive, they have managed to contain the unknown disease by using antibiotics.
Nekabandama councillor Alois Chibuswa said his area was the most affected and villagers in his ward were living in fear as the causes and type of disease was still unknown.
“It’s true the outbreak has been spreading, we are very worried as health officials have failed to detect the cause of the problem. One just starts feeling pain particularly in joints like someone with malaria and before we know that person is bedridden. In my area they are now calling the disease “umtshetshaphansi” meaning something that goes secretly underground because of the mystery surrounding its origins,” he said.
Clr Chibuswa said what was now complicating the matter was that some villagers have also lost their livestock which “just fall down and die”.
“We don’t understand what is causing it but suspicions are building on a possible relation of the outbreak of the disease to the recent sudden deaths of cattle in the ward. One example is of a village head, Samson Shoko who lost eight of his cattle to an unknown disease which could be anthrax.”
Nonetheless, Hwange District Veterinary Department officer Dr Lovemore Dube said his office has not yet received any reports of cattle dying from the ward but was quick to point out that cattle were prone to attacks of different diseases as a result of lots of rain which the country received in the summer season.