Known medically as Leishmaniasis, the parasitic disease is caused by sand flies found in the towering anthills of the arid districts of Kenya and results in lesions. This often leads to facial deformities.

The outbreak comes at a difficult time for the pastoralist communities of Kenya where two decades of droughts have left thousands of children malnourished and vulnerable to infection.

Those infected are travelling more than 300km to Wajir district hospital - the only medical centre in Kenya with specialists equipped to deal with the disease.

 

Although the hospital has treated 150 dying children within the past two months, doctors have not reached the infected areas and do not know the full extent of the epidemic.

Warder Hassan, the chief nursing officer of the hospital, says: "The pastoralist communities are trying by all means to go to Wajir for medicine and specialists who have experience in dealing with the disease. Some patients are arriving by foot, some by lorry, some by private [transportation]."


The hospital was in the forefront of Kenya's response when an outbreak of Kalazaar occurred in 1998-2000, claiming thousands of lives.

Tough challenge

 

But standing up to Kalazaar is a daunting task.

 

The hospital is no more than a series of corrugated, tin-roofed structures and improvised tent housing. The Kalazaar ward, including its outdoor tents, is at capacity.

Sabdow Hassan, a clinical officer at the stabilisation centre in Wajir, told Aljazeera.net: "We received a number of patients earlier this month and, according to them, hundreds of other potential patients are trapped in the more remote villages. The number of infected is rapidly increasing.

Sand flies in giant anthills cause
the debilitating disease

"We are receiving higher numbers of patients daily," he said.  

The government is trying to mobilise NGOs to tackle the problem.

 

The epidemic is stalking remote areas and the lack of transportation means many children are dying while attempting the arduous journey.

 

Charles Nzioka, the Kenyan health ministry's point man overseeing government efforts to control the current outbreak, says malnutrition has made the situation much more dangerous.

 

"Due to the persistent drought, the disease has been able to take huge quantities of children given the status of their immune systems," he told Aljazeera.net.

Ill-prepared

 

Golo Garso, a father of three infected children, said most of the patients are going to ill-equipped and under-staffed local dispensaries only to be told to make the journey to Wajir for diagnosis and treatment.

"The situation is bad for the majority of the inhabitants living in the region of Isiolo and Wajir," Garso says.

 

"Few are getting any medication. But more importantly, there are sick and inaccessible, dying children on the ground."

At least 48 per cent of the cases received since the beginning of the outbreak have been fatal, Wajir hospital sources say.

Tragic tale

 

Halima Bolo had no option but to walk to the Wajir 200km away with her four children, infected with the disease for the past three months.

 

Malnourished children are
particularly vulnerable

At home in Isiolo district, doctors' had wrongly diagnosed the children with malaria. One died during the trek.

"We were told it is malaria, but the child was not responding to the prescription. That was when we heard of the outbreak and decided to come to Wajir as a precautionary measure," Bolo says. 

Long wait

 

Although relief has been slow to arrive in Kenya's rural communities, NGOs such as the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) and GTZ are working with Unicef to dispatch assistance and set up awareness workshops.

 

Two medical units, including a mobile lab team, were dispatched to four areas in the region last week - Garsa, Malkagala, Merti and Badana - where the outbreak started.

The units are lecturing and training the staff on ways to identify the outbreak and properly diagnose and treat the victims.