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African outbreak stumps experts

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With few leads to go on, researchers pursue the childhood malady nodding syndrome.

The boy was perhaps seven or eight, although he could have been older: among other things, the disease that afflicts him stunts growth. When a seizure began, his mother summoned Sudhir Bunga, who found the boy sitting under a tree in a school playground. "The child was staring blankly and his head was intermittently nodding every five to eight seconds," Bunga says. "This lasted about three minutes."

Bunga was not surprised by what he saw. A physician and epidemiologist with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, he was in rural southern Sudan in May as part of an emergency-response team trying to assess a mysterious illness seen in children in the region. But despite his preparation, Bunga was deeply affected by his first encounter with 'nodding syndrome'. "Actually seeing it out in the community was overwhelming and distressing," he says. "The burden of the disease looked really high."

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