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‘Numbers’ that kill?

By Flavia Nassaka

Medical doctors warn against resorting to witchcraft over mythical disease

Dr. Thomas Lutalo of the ministry of Health is battling an unusual condition. He is in charge of investigating reports of a `strange disease’ in parts of central Uganda which emerges as a number on the skin of a patient. It is said that, like a scene depicted in horror movies, the `number’ represents the remaining days of life for the patient. After the days elapse, it is said, the patient dies.

Now, that is where Dr. Lutalo’s problem actually is to be found. Everybody has heard of someone who has died of the numbers disease, but no one has seen one die. The symptoms of the disease in addition to skin marks are said to be fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and in some cases abdominal pain.

Dr. Lutalo says in some cases of suspected `numbers-disease’ that have been seen at medical clinics, a Rapid Diagnostic Test (RDT) for malaria has proved positive and they have been successfully treated.

In one case, Lutalo says, the body of one suspected case that had passed away was examined and found to be pale and deeply jaundiced with rashes on the forehead and upper limbs.

“It could have been mistaken for numbers yet it could be a skin infection just like ring worms or any other disease,” Lutalo says.

He says ministry of Health surveillance focal persons and laboratory focal persons are collecting samples from active cases in affected areas though they have not yet seen any cases.

Dr. Fred Kambugu, a skin specialist at Kampala Skin Clinic says that the cause of the numbers disease has not yet been fully established but it could be caused by antibodies that induce loss of adhesion between epidermis and dermis, resulting to erosion of parts of the skin leading to the so-called numbers on the skin.

Dr Kambugu says he has not received any patient as yet but he encourages people to seek medical attention immediately they notice something unusual. He also recommends practicing proper hygiene since most of the skin infections are worsened by improper skin care. He advises use of anti-bacterial soap and clean water.

In spite of skepticism about the disease by doctors like Lutalo and Kambugu, reports of the numbers-disease that are said to have originated in Kiganda sub-county in Mubende, a south western district of Uganda two months ago have spread so fast through Mityana up to the capital Kampala. It is now common to find people in the city suburbs of Kawempe, Nabweru, and Kasubi who say they are living in fear of the disease. Some become hysterical upon noticing a previously unseen scar or skin mark.

It is unknown how it started, but people in these areas have resorted to trying out odd remedies, like tying parts of their bodies with sisal strings as a talisman against contracting the disease.

Dr. Harriet Birabwa, a psychiatrist at Butabika hospital says that the notion that tying one’s body with a sisal thread can provide protection against contracting any disease is baseless.

“It is a myth that needs to be dispelled immediately as very many people are dying because of harboring such baseless beliefs,” she says.

She advises people suspected to suffer from any strange disease not to resort to witchcraft and seclusion but rather seek medical attention in order to ease stigma. According to Birabwa stigma can cause several disorders such as depression which can eventually lead to death.

Dr. Birabwa’s caution targets a segment of the public that think the numbers’ disease is a product of witchcraft. Unfortunately, some Pentecostal pastors are already using the fear of the strange disease as a beacon for luring more followers to their worship centres with promises of a `cure’.

But the real trouble could be that, months after tales of the numbers-disease started, the ministry of Health has not come out to publicly explain the matter.

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