Deadly Kala Azar Disease Stalks South Sudan

A lady recovering from Kala Azar disease in Old Fangak clinic, South Sudan, April 19, 2012
A lady recovering from Kala Azar disease in Old Fangak clinic, South Sudan, April 19, 2012
Hannah McNeish

In newly independent South Sudan, deadly Kala Azar disease is still raging in some of the most remote areas lacking basic health services.

Standing next to the single tent she now calls home in the scorching sunshine, Alaskan-born Dr. Jill Seaman explained how after coming to South Sudan in 1989 and visiting villages where only five out of 1,000 people had survived a Kala Azar outbreak, she could not tear herself away from this swampland.

“We walked through villages where there was still the ash left from fires, there were still sticks left to tie your cattle up, but there were no people left, you were walking through ghost villages," said Seaman. "And that, plus watching all the skeletal people walking into the clinic every night to get treated and asking them ‘how many people in your family have died?’ and hearing the answer 12, 14, 8, 13 - it kind of bonds you to a community, and I suppose that’s why I’m still here.”

That Kala Azar outbreak killed around half the population in the area, and around half the 11,000 cases reported last year were treated at the clinic in Old Fangak.

Dr. Jill Seaman has dedicated years to fighting Kala Azar disease in South Sudan, April 19, 2012
Dr. Jill Seaman has dedicated years to fighting Kala Azar disease in South Sudan, April 19, 2012

An infectious disease carried by a parasite and transmitted by the bite of a sand fly, Kala Azar causes a fever that does not subside. If left untreated, Dr. Seaman said around 95 percent of Kala Azar patients simply waste away or die after catching other infectious diseases.

Three percent of patients died in Old Fangak last year, but the clinic has already treated 1,800 people with Kala Azar this year.

In a stuffy ward packed with patients laid head to toe on narrow beds, Nyadak Mouk cuddles her five-year-old son, who is suffering from Kala Azar-induced fever.

She walked eight hours from Keew village to reach the clinic. Having lost four of her six children to disease, she said she is not leaving until the boy is cured.

Mouk said she did not bring the other children to the clinic so she does not know why they died. She has been in Old Fangak for six months and fears if she moves away from the treatment center, she will lose her young son as well.

“I don’t know what they died of as I didn’t bring them to the clinic - they died in the village. I now live near the clinic. I left home six months ago, and I can’t be away from it as without treatment he will die,” Mouk said.

Dr. Abdi Nasir, a communicable disease specialist for the United Nations World Health Organization, said Kala Azar usually comes in cycles about every 10 years.

But residents of South Sudan are particularly vulnerable to infection because of attacks from rebel groups which displace thousands of people at a time, compounded by generally poor living conditions and nutrition.

Dr. Nasir said an outbreak that began in 2009 has now affected 25,000 people and still is raging. It is the worst in 30 years.

“We very much hope the outbreak to die down and the number it goes down, but looking at the different factors and the situation, it doesn’t look that way,” said Nasir.

Dr. Nasir expects another 11,000 people will be treated this year, but the treatment doesn't come cheaply. Even at the reduced prices available to WHO, the cure costs around $600 per person, not counting the expense of transporting it to remote places such as Old Fangak.

Dr. Seaman said if the medicines keep coming, the clinic can try and deal with Kala Azar.

But she said lack of food in the area is her primary concern. Last year, the surrounding areas had almost no harvest after heavy rains flooded crops. While more than 350,000 people have come to South Sudan since it gained independence from Sudan in July, further stretching resources, the border has practically been closed, doubling the prices of staple foods.

Health workers in the clinic said malnourished people are more likely to contract the disease as their immune systems are already low, and they are less likely to recover or will relapse.

Back in the ward, patients almost skeletal from the effects of Kala Azar try to regain their strength with plain bean mash that is the only food on offer.

How many lives the disease will claim this year depends on how much food and medicine aid agencies can deliver to this neglected area before next month's rains cut the region off from the world.

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs