The international NoNoma Federation launched a worldwide campaign Thursday to create awareness about Noma, a condition that permanently deforms the faces of undernourished children.
The disease strikes an estimated 140,000 poor people every year, mainly in Africa, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Up to 80 percent of victims die from the gangrenous infection, while survivors are left with deep holes in their faces, unable to speak, eat, smile or breathe normally. The epicenter of the disease is Sub-Saharan Africa, but parts of Asia and Latin America are also affected.
Organizers who launched the first Noma Day said their goal is to eliminate the obscure disease.
“We are bringing this scourge — unacceptable in the 21st century — out from the shadows,” Bertrand Piccard, president of the International NoNoma Federation, said during a presentation to experts. Piccard, a Swiss psychiatrist, is well known as the first hot-air balloonist to travel the globe in 1999 with Briton Brian Jones.
Noma is directly linked to malnutrition and poor hygienic conditions. If diagnosed early it can be effectively treated with vitamins, antibiotics and disinfecting mouthwash.
The disease epitomizes the breach between the world’s poor, starving populations and extravagant consumer societies, Piccard said.
The destructive necrosis begins as a benign lesion in the mouth, often as gingivitis. But without treatment, it rapidly destroys the soft and bone tissues of the face, disfiguring victims that in most cases are very young children.
Luis Gomez Sambo, WHO’s regional director for Africa, reported that 22 countries on the continent had confirmed cases of Noma, of which WHO is able to support national prevention programs in only 12. With a budget of only $2.5 million over five years, the United Nations agency is inadequately funded for the task, he said.
“The world has no excuse to remain passive against this disease which disfigures victims beyond recognition. They go through psychiatric trauma for the rest of their lives,” Sambo told the audience, according to a Reuters report.
Razak Zampaligre and Soare Ouango, from Burkina Faso, are among the more fortunate Noma victims. With reconstructive surgery, both men survived but still bear scars. Zampaligre, who developed Noma as a two-year-old, recalled being “an object of mockery” as a child because of the deformity in his right eye. With the help of the “Hymne aux Enfants” foundation he received surgery in Switzerland as a teenager in 2000-01.
“It is a great joy for me to see that people are interested in this disease and are working to stop it,” he told Reuters.