Strange Cuban disease attracts medical teams

May 20, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

MIAMI -- Doctors from around the world, including a U.S Nobel Prize winner, have responded to Cuba's plea for help in combating a puzzling eye and neural disease that has stricken some 25,000 Cubans.

Teams from the World Health Organization, the Pan American Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health have arrived in Havana since Deputy Health Minister Jorge Antelo Perez made an appeal for international support May 4 in Geneva.

Mr. Antelo admitted that Cuban health officials are baffled by the disease, which first appeared in early 1992 and began reaching epidemic proportions early this year. They are now referring to the disease as "epidemic neuropathy."

"There are many different types of neuropathy," said Dr. Carleton Gajdusek, a 1976 Nobel medicine winner and chief of the laboratory of Central Nervous Systems Study at the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Diseases.

"One of the commonest neuropathies in the world is the toxicity that affects people who steal and drink methyl alcohol . . . then there are viral causes, there are other causes that are autoimmune, there are genetic causes," said Dr. Gajdusek, who arrived in Cuba yesterday with two NIH colleagues.

In nearly 20,000 of the reported cases, the disease primarily affects the eye, causing blind spots and blurring or loss of color vision. In most of the other cases, patients experienced loss of sensation and coor dination in the limbs and difficulty in walking.

Three other American doctors from Orbis, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eye care around the world, and a U.S. nutritionist are already in Cuba as part of a group coordinated by the Pan American Health Organization.

Dr. Bjorn-Ivar Thylefors, a Swede who heads the World Health Organization's blindness prevention program, three other WHO doctors and several Latin American doctors also are part of the international investigation efforts.

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