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.