Combating Konzo

Eradicating preventable diseases in Sub-Saharan Africa requires money, education, government support, planning, and, not least, an interest from the community and the wider world in solving the problem. Konzo, a neurological disorder caused by improperly prepared cassava, is a case in point.

EAST LANSING, MICHIGAN – Too many preventable diseases, from AIDS to yellow fever, have long afflicted Sub-Saharan Africa. But eradicating them requires an understanding of the disease in question, money, education, government support, planning, and, not least, an interest from the community and the wider world in solving the problem.

Consider a preventable disease that most people have never heard of: konzo, a permanent, irreversible, upper-motor neuron disorder, common in rural areas of Sub-Saharan Africa that rely on the bitter varieties of the cassava plant as a staple crop. Konzo occurs when cassava tubers are not properly prepared before consumption, which usually requires soaking them until they ferment and then drying them in the sun to allow for the breakdown of cyanogenic compounds. Hundreds or thousands of people in a village region can be affected with every outbreak.

Konzo is especially common in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, and Tanzania, and often follows droughts or conflicts, when food is scarce. Women and children are the worst affected, especially during times of economic hardship, when they have the least access to meat, beans, and other sources of sulfur amino acids necessary for the liver to detoxify cyanide in the body.

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