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Flesh-eating disease making a comeback

IOL | January 25, 2007

Geneva - A disease, almost eradicated, that eats through people's skin, cartilage and bones is re-appearing in Africa, Asia and South America, the World Health Organisation has warned.

Yaws, a bacterial infection that can cause debilitating deformations, particularly in under-15's, once affected 50-million people worldwide before a widespread treatment programme in the 1950's almost wiped it out.

Control programmes were gradually dismantled when the incidence of the disease dropped by 95 percent.

Dr Kingsley Asiedu, a WHO disease expert, said: "People assumed that the last few cases would be caught by public health systems but yaws made a comeback.

"This is an easily treatable disease that we are technically capable of eradicating," he added.

For instance, India began a nationwide effort to eliminate the disease in 1996 and no cases have been detected in the sub-continent since 2003.

Yaws' resurgence stands as a cautionary tale for other disease eradication programmes such as polio, which often falter in their final stages. "Nobody thought the last five percent of cases would be so difficult," Asiedu said.

At present about 500 000 people, mostly in poor, rural areas, are affected by yaws, according to WHO.

The global health body said it had assembled experts from countries where yaws is endemic in Geneva to consider whether to revive the global programme of 50 years ago to "eradicate this disease once and for all".

The non-fatal disease is spread by spiral bacteria similar to those that cause syphilis but can be treated with a single dose of cheap penicillin.

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