Mysterious “Disease X” Strikes in Ethiopia: What is it?

As the world continues to grapple with coronavirus, another mysterious disease is silently infecting and killing villagers in Ethiopia’s Ogaden Basin. According to an investigation by The Guardian, the main symptoms of the disease – which one local leader claimed has killed 2000 people since 2014 include bleeding from the mouth and nose and intense yellowing of the eyes and palms.

Disease X

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has named it “Disease X,” a name given to a mysterious pathogen capable of spreading and wreaking havoc across the world.

When Abdi Khadar’s eyes and palms started turning yellow, nobody saw it as a cause for alarm. Soon he started bleeding from his nose and mouth with his body getting swollen. This was followed by a strong fever that made him frail eventually leading to his death. Many of Khadar’s neighbours have claimed experiencing similar symptoms .

Although the cause of the disease is not yet known, there are growing speculations that Poly-GCL, a partly state-owned Chinese company could be responsible. The company is currently engaged in oil and gas prospects in the Ogaden Basin where it has been developing the Calub and Hilala fields since 2013 when it signed a production sharing deal with the Ethiopian government.

Chinese Energy Company Spilling Toxic Waste May Be to Blame

An engineer who worked for the company for three years told the Guardian in confidence that there were regular spillages of sulphuric acid and other deadly fluids. This was reiterated by Ali Hassan Farah who claimed that “local people were dying from raw toxins spilled out of sheer carelessness.”

According to Healthline, long term exposure to toxins can cause scarring of the liver leading to a severe medical condition called Cirrhosis. Symptoms of cirrhosis occur when “the liver is unable to purify the blood, break down toxins, produce clotting proteins, and help with absorption of fats-soluble vitamins.”

Early symptoms include nose bleeds, yellow discoloration, weight loss, decreased appetite. More serious conditions that appear at an advanced stage include abdominal swelling, swelling of the legs, gynecomastia (men developing breasts) and impotence. The complications that could result from cirrhosis include kidney Failure and liver cancer.

Ethiopian Government: We are Not Aware of Any Reports of Toxic Spills

While Poly-GCL refused to comment when contacted, Ethiopian Government through the director of licensing at the federal ministry of mines and petroleum Mr Ketsela Tadesse, said it was not aware of any reports of spillages, also observing that there were no permanent residents in the vicinity of the gas project because people in the area were pastoral farmers.

“We can emphatically state that all the gas wells at Calub and elsewhere in the Ogaden Basin are sealed, safe and secured according to international standards,” said Tadesse. Despite this denial, medical experts in the area have claimed that most cases of the mysterious disease have emanated from the area around the gas project.

But there is also a possibility that the toxins were left by companies that operated in the area many years back before the arrival of the Chinese company. Extensive oil and gas deposits were first discovered in the area almost 90 years ago. The first exploration was undertaken by American Standard Oil in 1920. Further explorations by Tenneco also of America in 1974, led to the discovery of almost 68 million cubic meters of gas.

Could Disease X be Crimea-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever?

Whereas many in the affected areas are blaming such exploration as the cause, there is an implausible belief in some quarters that the disease could be ‘Crimea-Congo hemorrhagic fever (CCHF), a viral disease common in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia with sporadic outbreaks in Kosovo, Albania, Iran and Turkey over the years. Its symptoms include bleeding from the upper bowel, blood in the urine nosebleeds and bleeding from the gums.

Even though some of these symptoms could be similar to those of the mysterious disease , a number of factors rule out the possibility of CCHF. One is that the latter has been localized in one area for a very long time unlike CCHF which tends to spread fast across a wide geographical area if not controlled.

Ethiopia’s 2001 Struggle With A Strange Illness

It is not the first time a mysterious disease is being reported in Ethiopia. In early 2000s, a strange illness was reported in the Northern region after people living in the villages began to develop swollen abdomens, losing weight and showing signs of liver disease.

In some cases all members of one family were wiped out by the disease. In 2005 a multidisciplinary team made of Ethiopian medical experts, environmentalists and anthropologists supported by the US Centers for Disease Control, began to carry out investigations in the area to determine the cause.

After two years, the investigations ruled out infectious disease and suggested that the disease may be related to toxins in the diets of the locals. Although no definite cause was found the experts were able to narrow down the list of possibilities. They discovered that grain samples gathered from household farms contained low levels of plant based liver toxins called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs). Their conclusion was that the cause of the outbreak was exposure to a toxic PA-contaminated grain or animal product.