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Is lathyrism still endemic in northern Ethiopia? – The case of Legambo Woreda (district) in the South Wollo Zone, Amhara National Regional State

Redda Tekle Haimanot
Amsalu Feleke
Fernand Lambein


Background: Lathyrism is a neurotoxic disorder caused by over consumption of grass pea (lathyrism sativus). It is endemic in Ethiopia, India and Bangladesh. The fact that grass pea usually tends to replace the staple serial based diet of rural north and central Ethiopia during times of acute food shortages, makes the disease particularly important in the Ethiopian context.

Objective: This study is aimed at investigating on whether lathyrism is still endemic in northern Ethiopia based on the March 26, 2004 report that appeared on the Amharic daily Addis Zemen, which indicated the occurrence of an epidemic where 400 people have been paralyzed in Legambo Woreda, south Wollo, Zone of ANRS.

Methods: A house-to-house survey of 3,440 households was undertaken in Legambo Woreda, south Wollo Zone of the Amhara National Regional State, using pre-tested questionnaires. The study subjects were identified as persons with walking difficulties due to weaknesses of the legs.

Results: The study identified 424 cases of lathyrism which occurred over many years in the woreda which has a population of 171,976, which gives a prevalence of 2.5/1000. Specifically the survey revealed that there were 48 cases with onset occuring in 1997, 54 in 1998, 55 in 1999, 38 in 2000 and 37 in 2001. The study further revealed that there is ongoing endemicity of lathyrism in this typical highland woreda of north Ethiopia.

Conclusion: It important that lathyrism gets the attention of relevant governmental agencies that should ensure the existence of early waring systems to deal with food shortages promptly so that the rural population does not resort to consuming large amounts of grass pea. Lathyrism has to also be a reportable disease within the Ministry of Health system in those areas of northern Ethiopia when grass pea is cultivated.

Ethiopian Journal of Health Development Vol. 19(3) 2005: 230-236

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eISSN: 1021-6790