Podoconiosis currently afflicts an estimated 4 million people worldwide, 1.5 million in Ethiopia alone, making this almost certainly the most affected country.
By Tom Gardner (HuffPost Impact) |
WARA, Ethiopia—The district of Dawro in southern Ethiopia is farming country, its fertile soils brimming with life.
On steep hills, farmers eke out a living from corn and teff, yam and banana. When the thin air thickens with mist and rain, the copper-colored ground turns to mud.
But this fecund earth, a blessing for Dawro’s farmers, can also be a curse. Something in the soil triggers a disfiguring disease that may hobble even the hardiest folk.
“I am quite young but now I look old,” said Wosani Wolanchu, a 40-year-old mother of five waiting for an appointment at a clinic in the village of Wara.
She eases off an oversized plastic sandal to reveal a bloated, swollen foot riddled with scabs and moss-like warts. It took her two hours to hobble from her home to the clinic, a journey that once took little more than 30 minutes.
Wosani is living with podoconiosis (endemic non-filarial elephantiasis), a non-infectious skin disease experts say is entirely preventable, were she able to afford proper footwear.
Here in Ethiopia’s remote highland villages, where farmers plow the soil barefoot while wives and children at home pad across dusty, uncovered floors, shoes are still a luxury. So in places like Wara the disease sometimes known as “mossy foot” endures, while the world remains largely ignorant of its ravaging effects.
Unlike the similar but much more common lymphatic filariasis (commonly called elephantiasis), which humans contract when mosquito bites transmit a parasitic worm, podoconiosis stems from prolonged exposure to red-clay minerals in volcanic soils.
The causes are not fully understood but it is thought that soil particles, which enter through cracks in dry skin on the sole of the foot, damage lymphatic vessels, eventually causing swelling and a mushroom-like thickening and folding of the skin. This is often accompanied by recurrent malaria-like episodes, which render feverish victims incapacitated for as many as 90 days each year.
Podoconiosis currently afflicts an estimated 4 million people worldwide, 1.5 million in Ethiopia alone, making this almost certainly the most affected country. Reliable estimates from other heavily affected countries, such as Cameroon, don’t come close.
A countrywide survey of Ethiopia in 2013, the first of its kind anywhere, found the disease to be more widespread than previously thought. The disease is endemic in some 40 percent of the country’s administrative districts and roughly 35 million people are at risk.
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