February 15, 2006

Mystery disease blinds Amazon children in Brazil

SAO PAULO, Brazil (Reuters) - Researchers are scrambling to
discover what is blinding children in the Amazon city of
Araguatins in the remote northern Brazilian state of Tocantins,
health officials said on Wednesday.

Three of the 365 children identified by the Disease Control
Agency of Tocantins with similar lesions on their eyes are
totally blind. Two others were blinded in one eye and have
undergone surgery.

The agency reported the first 17 cases in November, 2005.

Since then, state and federal health officials,
epidemiologists from the University of Sao Paulo and the
Osvaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro and specialists from
Rio Grande do Sul and the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta
have been compiling data to identify the cause of the disease.

"At this point we are ruling out nothing," the coordinator
for Disease Control in Tocantins, Perciliana Bezerra, told

"We can say that it is only affecting children in
Araguatins and not in the surrounding areas and there appears
to be a link with something in the Araguaia River."

Health officials have issued advisories banning swimming or
bathing in the river around the city.

Bezerra said one likely possibility was a local snail that
may be transmitting a fungus, bacteria, virus or parasite but
local vegetation or animals that live near or in the river may
also be the host or cause of the disease.

Health ministry officials are expected to call a meeting of
the specialists involved in the research to try to reach a
consensus on the mystery disease in early March, Bezerra said.