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Black flies upsurge sparks fear among residents of Lamwo, Pader

Shores of River Achwa are infested with Black flies. File Photo

Lamwo, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | Rural communities in Lamwo and Pader districts are living in fear of experiencing new cases of nodding syndrome due to an upsurge in black flies. People living along the belt of the fast-flowing river Achwa, say that since November last year, the population of black flies has been growing significantly.

Although the exact cause of the nodding syndrome is not yet established, the health ministry links the mystery illness to onchocerca volvulus, a parasitic worm that can also cause river blindness spread by bites from infected black flies.

In Lamwo district, the black flies are reportedly breeding heavily in the village of Abam East in the newly created Palabek Abera sub-county. Bob Akena, a Village Health Team-VHT supervisor in Palabek Abera sub-county told Uganda Radio Network that the huge numbers of black flies in Abam East village have left many farmers unable to farm in the morning and evening hours for fear of the painful bites from the flies.

Akena says chickens too have ceased climbing down from tree branches or coming out of chicken coops early morning due to intense bites from the blackflies, adding that they only surface in compounds at midday.

Akena says earlier efforts to spray the riverbanks to get rid of the blackflies stopped two years ago when one of the local Non-governmental organizations ceased operations in Kitgum, Pader, and Lamwo districts. He has appealed to health officials and the health ministry for urgent intervention in eradicating the black flies, which are bound to hamper the fight against river blindness.

David Okot, the Abam East village LC I chairperson in Palabek Abera sub-county where the flies are breeding, says that locals are afraid that there could be new cases of nodding syndrome emerging within the community. Okot says his area like many other parts in the region registered significant numbers of children infected with nodding syndrome in the past, adding that the growing population of blackflies evokes bad memories.

Moses Omony, the coordinator for the River Blindness Elimination programme in Lamwo district, says that they have started investigating the concerns. He notes that a team of vector officers has been dispatched to catch the flies and pick their samples for tests to ascertain whether they are infectious or not.

He also reiterates that the upsurge is threatening many years of efforts put by the government and several stakeholders in eliminating river blindness and nodding syndrome.

In Pader district, local leaders report that the blackflies are breeding in the sub-counties of Angagura and Awere. Freddy Stephen Okello, Angagura sub-county chairperson says the flies are breeding in Bulobo, Kalawinya, and Pucora parishes along river Achwa.

He notes that farming in the affected areas has become a challenge for farmers since the flies are active mostly early morning and evening hours. Dr. Alfred Mubangizi, the assistant commissioner for vector-borne and neglected tropical disease in the health ministry acknowledges receiving concerns from the region on an upsurge of black flies.

According to Dr Mubangizi, an earlier intervention by the government in applying Abate, a larvicide put in rivers for killing the blackflies in all endemic areas was abandoned due to high costs incurred. He notes that the government has since come up with cost-effective measures of slashing and clearing bushes along rivers infested with black flies. In 2012, the government conducted aerial spraying of river Achwa and its tributaries with Abate (a safe chemical) to kill the black flies following a surge in cases of nodding syndrome, a neurological ailment that affected children between the ages of 5 and 15.

The condition characterized by head nodding, seizures, severe cognitive deterioration, and stunted growth affected some 3,000 children and killed more than 150 within Acholi sub-region.

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